Zeroing in: Birdie barrage helps Tiger match season-low score as he jumps into contention at the Quicken Loans National

June 29, 2018

POTOMAC, Md. — As Tiger Woods stalked the line of his pitch shot from a collection area right of the 18th green at TPC Potomac on Friday morning, Marc Leishman turned to Bill Haas, the third member of the grouping, and predicted Woods was going to hole it.

“Really?” Haas said. “It looks pretty tough to me.”

Woods strolled back to his ball resting on a tightly mowed lie, just 80 feet from the cup, and Leishman added, “It’s perfect for his little spinner.”

So was the execution. No putter required for Woods, who chipped in for a birdie that jump-started his round.

“I just had a feeling,” Leishman said. “I’ve never really said that, but it just had his name written all over it, and in it went so it made me look good.”

Woods termed it “a bonus,” and on a sweltering hot day, his new mallet-style putter heated up with the mercury en route to making seven birdies for the round and shooting a five-under 65, which tied for his lowest score this season.

Woods, who this week benched his Scotty Cameron Newport 2 putter that helped him win 13 of his 14 major championships, got off to an auspicious start on day No. 2 of his experiment with a TaylorMade TP Ardmore 3 mallet putter by holing a 24-foot birdie putt at No. 10. But he gave the stroke back one hole later when his second shot landed in the hazard fronting the green, and Woods was lucky to salvage bogey. When he poured in a 19-foot birdie putt at 12, Woods had made nearly as many feet of putts in three holes as he had for his 18 holes on Thursday.

He missed a slick, 6-foot downhill birdie putt at 13, but he walked in another birdie putt at 15 after planting his approach to 16 feet. Woods did make one more miscue on his opening nine, and his putter was to blame. At 17, he faced a 39-foot birdie putt over a ridge that skated 6 feet past the hole and he missed the comebacker. Adjusting to a high-MOI face-balanced mallet putter will take time, especially with pace on longer putts.

Coming off the three-putt, Woods flared his tee shot to the right and yelled, “Fore!” From a juicy lie in the rough, Woods slashed a five-iron that trickled into a collection area. When he holed his chip with a 60-degree wedge, he lifted his right arm to the sky, smiled and knocked knuckles with Leishman.

“I was hitting that shot in the practice round and it’s exactly the same shot and it was pretty sweet,” Woods said. “Worked out perfectly.”

Woods carried the momentum to his second nine and made three birdies, including two straight starting at the 2nd hole when he reached the 606-yard par-5 in two.

“Smoked it,” Woods said of his 3-wood. “Flew it 280 with a nice, high cut off a downhill lie. Not exactly an easy shot to hit, but I pulled it off.”

One hole later, Woods poured in a 26-footer and finished his birdie-fest on the 5th by flighting a low knocked-down wedge from 93 yards that spun back to 3 feet.

All told, Woods hit 10 fairways and 13 greens and took 26 putts. After ranking 92nd out of a field of 120 and losing more than a stroke on the greens Thursday, Woods gained 2.02 strokes with the flatstick on Friday. He canned four putts of more than 15 feet. It was arguably the most complete round Woods has played since returning from back-fusion surgery.

“It was solid,” caddie Joe LaCava said. “I think he played better golf on the weekend at TPC, but didn’t finish off the rounds and his ball-striking was better at the Memorial, but I’m not discounting it. Lots of positive signs.”

Woods moved into contention, just four strokes off the 36-hole clubhouse lead held by Beau Hossler, who fired a 66 for a nine-under total of 131. Woods is still battling with Thursday-itis. He failed to break par in the opening round for the sixth consecutive tournament. On his radio show on the Sirius/XM PGA Tour Radio Network, Hank Haney, Woods’s former instructor, noted that Woods has been at least six shots behind after the first round of every tournament he’s played in dating back to the Masters.

“People want to talk about finishing all the time,” Haney said. “You can’t finish something you don’t start. Seven shots behind after one round, it’s a little hard to win a tournament. It’s not impossible, but your margin for error just gets wiped away.”

When Woods was asked the obvious question of whether he felt he’s ready to win his 80th PGA Tour title, he didn’t hesitate.

“I think I’m not that far away from putting it together where I can win,” he said.

Woods has wisely tempered expectations in this latest comeback. But he also has never been the type that would accept an ‘A’ for effort. He was the antithesis of this era of participation trophies. He collected hardware not friends.

“It’s gonna happen, it’s gonna come, I’m convinced of that,” Haney said.

So is Leishman, who had one more prediction about Woods he shared with a few reporters after his round.

“Everything is looking good. I can’t think of a reason why he won’t win soon,” Leishman said. “He’s very, very close.”