PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — The first Saturday morning in March is the last place you expect to assess the Masters readiness of the world’s best golfer. Then again, it’s fortunate there was anything to assess at all.
Tiger Woods barely snuck into the weekend at the Honda Classic – his new hometown tournament. In the first two-some off in the morning with Luke Guthrie, he wasn’t just chasing leader Rory McIlroy from 11 shots behind but also his first Sunday appearance of the year on the PGA Tour in what has been the slowest start of his 18-year career.
A 5-under 65 – his best round of the season – was a positive sign that the 38-year-old Woods has more than what he’s shown so far as the weeks counting down to the Masters.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Woods said. “Today was a positive day, hit the ball well and made some putts and got myself back in the hunt.”
The scrutiny that constantly envelops Woods has grown denser in 2014 as he returned showing little of the form that won him five events last year. His body looks bigger, his swing tighter and his results poorer.
He started with a tie for 80th at Torrey Pines – a place where he’s won eight times including his last career major at the U.S. Open in 2008. A Saturday 79 sent him packing after the 54-hole secondary cut.
The next week in Dubai he failed to follow up an opening 68 and finished tied for 41st, 10 strokes behind winner Stephen Gallacher.
Sitting 66th when he arrived at PGA National in darkness on Saturday morning, Woods was flirting with finishing 40th or worse in three consecutive starts for only the second time in his career. In 2012 he went T40 at the Masters, missed the cut in Charlotte and another T40 at the Players during a rare triple dip. But he bracketed that stretch on both sides with wins at Bay Hill and Memorial.
“I’ve had a long enough career where I’ve gone through periods like that, yeah, where it’s tough,” Woods said. “I’ve had situations where it just seems like no matter what you do, you play, nothing really goes your way. You can’t get the feel of your swing, can’t get the putter going, short game, just it’s one thing after another. And it’s like we can week after week after week, round after round after round like that, and next thing you know, couple months and half the season has gone by. I’ve been through sessions like that, you look at my career, it’s gone in waves like that.”
With only six weeks to the Masters that Woods hasn’t won since 2005, the search was on for a spark. Despite hitting only six fairways (including just one of the front nine), Woods was making putts like he used to. Through the first 15 holes he had taken only 17 putts – with 11 one-putts and a chip-in. He missed birdie chances inside 15 feet on the last three holes or he could have posted something low enough for McIlroy to think about before he teed off.
“I just felt like I had good feel today,” Woods said of his putting. “I missed my share of putts, too. The last couple holes it would have been nice to get one of those, too. But I played the par-3s in 3-under today, which was pretty nice.”
It was a big turnaround from Friday afternoon when Woods “grinded it out” to make the cut on the number – something Phil Mickelson failed to do. With not enough daylight to practice, Woods made the short 20-minute commute to his home in Jupiter and slept on it. It clicked as soon as he showed up on dawn patrol.
“I had a good range session this morning, it was good,” he said. “Came out today and very first hole I hit it to 3 feet but it spun back to about 15 feet and I made that.”
In the end a 65 probably isn’t enough to reel in McIlroy or the other leaders. “Rory could run and hide,” he admitted.
But Saturday’s round was more of a big-picture boost. It was a sign of life. It’s something to take to the rebuilt Doral and Bay Hill for what are expected to be his last tune-ups before Augusta.
Woods seems less concerned than everyone else about the state of his game that hasn’t won a major in five years or a Masters in nine.
“It’s going to turn around,” he said before heading off holding hands with his 6-year-old daughter, Sam, and girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn. “We are all going to have hot spells and we’re going to have cold spells, especially the longer we stay out here. You try and get those hot spells and ride them as long as you can and get those cold spells as short as they can.”
It’s high time for his game to heat up.