PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods has hit some of the weirdest golf shots you’ve ever seen this week — half-blind punch shots from under hanging branches, off-target tee shots barreling into bermuda rough and, the kicker, a pitching wedge left-handed.
The best player in the world is not playing his best golf, and yet there he sits through 54 holes of the Players Championship, within shouting distance of the leader, Alex Cejka.
In fact, it might as well be whispering distance. Woods will be playing with Cejka in Sunday’s final group.
“Just grinding it out,” said Woods, whose third-round 70 left him five shots behind Cejka, who shot 72. “This is basically our fifth major, and that’s how it’s playing, just like a major championship. It’s fast, it’s hard, it’s dry, and you just have to keep plodding along.”
Woods’s play at Sawgrass this week has been far from the dominant stretches of his career (1999-2001, 2005-07), when his ball-striking suffocated all comers. Instead, in his comeback from reconstructive knee surgery, Woods’s short game has been his trump card.
It saved him at Bay Hill, where he made up five shots to beat Sean O’Hair. It kept him competitive at the Masters, where he battled a two-way miss off the tee box. It has rescued him at steamy TPC Sawgrass, where he missed half his fairways Saturday and still motored up the leader board.
“That’s the whole idea, just making par after par,” he said. “If you happen to sprinkle in a birdie, that would be fine.”
Woods mixed in five of them, along with three bogeys, in a round that had everything. The most unexpected moment happened beneath a stand of trees to the left of the par-5 11th fairway. With his ball nestled in pine needles inches from a tree, Woods had little choice but to hit the ball left handed. He addressed the ball with the toe of his pitching wedge pointing down and slashed at the ball.
He hit it flush.
“I actually hit it too good,” said Woods, who occasionally practices left-handed shots around putting greens.
The ball shot across the fairway behind another tree. From there, he made bogey after trying to cut his third shot onto the green. Instead, he missed the putting surface and then failed to get up and down from behind the green.
“I made 6 on a hole that I should have been making 4,” he said.
One week after testing various driver shafts at Quail Hollow, Woods mostly kept the driver in the bag Saturday, a concession both to the firm conditions and to his lack of comfort with his long game.
“I’m not that far off,” Woods said. “Look at my rounds since I’ve come back and played again. I really haven’t been that far off. I just haven’t been as consistent as I was before my injury.”
Throughout his career, Woods has often explained that he was close when coming back from an injury or going through a swing change. He might have a point. His rounds of 71, 69 and 70 at TPC represent the first time he’s carded three consecutive under-par rounds here since the last three rounds of the 2001 Players Championship.
He closed his round with birdies on 16 and 17 and a par on 18 after punching a 6-iron from below the trees on the right side of the fairway and getting up and down from the fringe that hugs the water.
Many questions surround Woods in his sixth tournament back from his layoff. How will he hit the ball off the tee? How will his knee react to playing in back-to-back events? But he continues to find ways to plant himself on leader boards.
In late March at Bay Hill, Woods clawed his way up the board, finally passing O’Hair on the 72nd hole with a birdie putt in the dark.
Once more, he trails a leader by five. Once more, his swing is not where he wants it to be.
Sounds like he has Cejka right where he wants him.