How low can he go? Tiger needs an old-school Tiger Saturday to get back in this thing

September 7, 2018

NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa.— OK, there is a winning score for this tournament, as the weekend of FedEx III — Philadelphia! — comes upon us. We just don’t know it. The chairman of BMW (title sponsor) doesn’t know it, Brandel Chamblee doesn’t know it, even Phil doesn’t know it. The leader, Xander Schauffele, was at 13 under through two rounds. The course is going to play only softer through the weekend. It’s not going to get harder. So what’s the winning score going to be?

Somebody asked that question to Roger Maltbie, vastly experienced at these things. He looked the sky, considered the names on the leaderboard, allowed for the weather forecast and said, “Twenty under?”

OK, let’s go with that.

Well, through two rounds, Tiger Woods is eight under. So he has to go 12 under on the weekend to get to the Course Whisperer’s magic number. That would be 64-64, on this par-70 Aronimink course. That’s asking a lot.

You could say that Tiger needs a Tiger Saturday. In his prime, Woods owned Saturdays like the NFL owns Sundays. On Saturdays, he got to the top of the leaderboard, watched the golf coverage early Sunday afternoon, went to the practice range around 2 p.m. to work on his traj and spent the rest of the day playing chess on an odd-shaped 150-acre board. But what Tiger needs on his Saturday here is his Thursday. That is, the 62 he shot in the first round of this BMW Championship. You don’t just summon that. It’s been said forever: winning these things is hard!

It’s been fascinating, seeing Woods’s game evolve over the course of the year. All through these first three FedEx events, almost every time Woods has had a driver in hand he has hit (or tried to hit) one basic shot, a high smashed drive that reaches its apex and curves about three yards right before falling out of the sky. You could catch it with your bare hands and it would not sting. The fairways here are wide to begin with and playing wider, as soft as they are. The Tour has been in similar conditions for weeks, a function of this intensely hot Lower 48 summer. The courses have needed water.

Woods might have won the PGA Championship at Bellerive, had he been able to drive the ball more reliably. On the short par-5 17th on Sunday, he looked like he was trying to hit a draw shot but it went far right and any chance he had to win was pretty much gone. Since then, he has changed shafts and added one degree of loft to his driver. The difference in the flight is noticeable even to amateur eyes.

Tiger says he's using a more comfortable driver shaft and loft these days, and it feels more familiar.
Tiger says he’s using a more comfortable driver shaft and loft these days, and it feels more familiar.

“My speed, my rotation, so many different things have evolved through the year and have gotten better, so we’ve decided to go with more loft and go back to a shaft that I’ve won with a lot,” Woods said on Thursday. “The feel in my hands is familiar, [there’s] a familiar vibration of the shaft.”

After the Friday 70 he said, “Switching to this driver has made a big difference, especially in my body. I’m swinging easier and hitting the ball farther.” Nice work if you can get it!

Really, there’s not a course in the world you cannot play — including Augusta National, with those back-nine par-5s — if you can fly the ball 300-plus yards with a baby fade. It brings to mind what old Texas golfers used to say, and Woods, with all his time with the Harmon Brothers in Texas, likely knows it: “You can talk to a fade. The only thing you can say to a hook is, ‘Get on the ground,
mother——.'”

But there’s another old-time golf truism that comes to mind here, one that originates with the legendary golf teacher Percy Boomer: “I putt as a I drive.” In Tiger’s prime, that was absolutely true for him. There was no “hold” in his driver swing, as there is now. It released, spectacularly, and his putting stroke did precisely the same thing. It came slightly inside, squared perfectly at impact, then went slightly inside again. Multiplied by a thousand times, it had the shape of a waxing crescent moon. The way Woods goes about his driving and putting business right now, he cannot putt as he drives.

But even though putt-as-I-drive served him well for years, maybe it doesn’t matter. He played Thursday and Friday with Rickie Fowler, who modeled his putting stroke on Tiger’s, to a degree. Fowler is also someone who can hit baby-draws with the driver all day long.

“I think it’s true,” Fowler said Friday, about the phrase putt as you drive. But, he said, it doesn’t cover everybody and everything. For years, he said, his standard tee shot was about a two-yard draw. “Now I’m hitting driver with just a slight fade,” he said. “But with my irons, my natural flight is still a slight draw.” For Fowler, it’s not so much putt as you drive but putt as you hit a full-bore 5-iron. From the inside. Square at impact. Back inside again.

Tiger is likely doing about the same thing. His irons and iron swing looks like it comes out of a golfing dream. That’s why the Tour players think he’ll win a major again, because of his iron play, and his resolve. Look at what he’s done this year.

But there’s still a long road ahead of him, and this is his third straight week. A thousand little pieces have to come together in this game if you’re trying to shoot a lower score than everybody else. This is not likely the week that Tiger Woods will do that, not over 72 holes. The whole Tour seems to have a phrase for him, one he uses himself with a different pronoun: “He’s getting close.”

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]