Woods felt a twinge in his lower back when he awoke and felt pain throughout the second round at Bethpage Black. He overcame a bogey-bogey start, struggled in the simple task of retrieving the ball from the cup and stayed well within range of Nick Watney and the resurgent Sergio Garcia, who shared the lead going into the weekend.
As many injuries as Woods has gone through the past two years, the way he grimaced and walked gingerly made it look as if this could be another.
But that wasn’t the case.
“Must have slept funny on it,” Woods said. “Soft beds at the hotel, and woke up this morning with it stiff. As I warmed up, it got progressively worse, and then you saw what happened on the golf course. It hurt all day.”
He managed 2-under 69.
More impressive were Garcia and Watney, also playing in the afternoon as they worked their way up the leaderboard.
Garcia, who ended a four-year drought on the PGA Tour last week by winning the Wyndham Championship, made bogey on the third hole with what he called his worst swing of the week and atoned for that with a tee shot on the par-5 fourth that restored his momentum and sent him to 68.
Watney, whose season has been so dismal that he isn’t even in the Ryder Cup conversation as a potential pick, went eagle-birdie on the par 5s on the front nine and then survived a roller coaster of birdies and bogeys on the back nine that gave him 69.
They were at 8-under 134.
Vijay Singh, who last won a PGA Tour event in 2008 when he captured the opening two playoff events and sailed to the FedEx Cup title, played bogey-free for a 67 and was one shot out of the lead, along with Bob Estes, who had a 66. John Senden (68) and Pat Perez (70) were another stroke back at 6-under 136.
Rory McIlroy noticed Woods wincing on the opening tee shot. About an hour later, McIlroy felt his own pain with sloppy mistakes during a four-hole stretch, three of them bogeys, that left him outside the cut line. But not for long. The PGA champion bounced back with an 18-foot birdie putt on the ninth, added two more birdies and had a 73.
The cut was at 1-over 143, ending the FedEx Cup playoffs for the likes of Robert Allenby, Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III and Heath Slocum, who narrowly got into the 125-man field at the start of the playoffs.
Garcia didn’t look as though he would be around the PGA Tour’s version of a postseason until winning last week in North Carolina by using a local club caddie, and then showing no signs of a letdown at Bethpage Black while using a CBS Sports spotter on the bag.
The Spaniard is getting his own yardages, compiling his own thoughts, going off his own instincts. And he’s hitting a lot of very good shots.
“Golf is a funny game,” Garcia said. “When you think that you have it under control, it kicks you down. And then all of a sudden, it gives you something to live it again, I guess. Obviously, if I’m not hitting the shots, then it doesn’t help.”
He hit plenty of good ones at Bethpage, including a chip-in for birdie from behind the green at No. 2, the drive that pleased him so much on No. 4, and an 8-iron from 171 yards on the tough fifth hole to about 8 feet for birdie.
Garcia announced after the round that he would not play in the Deutsche Bank Championship next week at the TPC Boston, saying he wanted to stay fresh for the Ryder Cup.
Watney hasn’t given himself many chances this year, but if his game isn’t coming around, at least his attitude is.
“If a football team is struggling, they win one game, it’s not really a success,” Watney said. “But in golf if you’re struggling, you win one tournament, all of a sudden ... I don’t know how Sergio was playing, but he wins last week and he’s right up there again this week. He’s climbing the rankings and all that stuff. Golf is funny in that way. Just a couple little things here and there, and all of a sudden you’re playing great.”
There was evidence of that all over Bethpage.
Padraig Harrington opened with a 64 and revived talk about his slim chances of making the European Ryder Cup. Then, he bogeyed his opening three holes and had to grind out a 75 to stay in the mix at 3-under 139. McIlroy went from three straight bogeys and three birdies in five holes. Singh was a forgotten Fijian until he shared the 36-hole lead with Woods at the PGA Championship, and now goes into another weekend with high hopes.
“I think I’m playing as good as I did in any part of my career,” Singh said. “I’m hitting the ball as long. I’m hitting the ball straighter. I feel a lot of confidence in me. It’s just I need to get some kind of momentum going. I thought I had it at the PGA, but I kind of let it slip there on Sunday. But it’s all about how you’re hitting it, and right now I’m striking the ball good. My distance is back, and I’m literally pain-free, which makes a whole lot of difference.”
Woods was anything but pain-free Friday.
It became evident in the middle of the back nine, especially stooping over so carefully to pluck the ball out of the cup that it looked like he was doing a curtsey. The worst of it came on the par-5 13th, when he drove into a fairway bunker. Walking down the slope, he lost his footing, both feet landed in the sand with a thud. He stooped over to catch his breath, blasted out and eventually had to play a nifty pitch-and-run from the back slope of a cross bunker to save his par.
“It was like a section of movement, so it didn’t hurt standing up, it didn’t hurt at the bottom of a squat, but it was the somewhere-in-between-there it was going to catch. It would grab just before impact, so you’d kind of expect, it, so I could get through that,” Woods said.
It’s not the first time he has tweaked his back, so he knew how to get by.
Woods headed for the fitness trailer when he finished and said he would be fine on Saturday. As for the bed?
“I’m probably going to sleep on the floor,” he said. “I do that in Europe all the time, so this is nothing new.”