PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There were no signs of trouble when Tiger Woods looped around the 16th green en route to the 17th tee box Friday morning at TPC Sawgrass.
He had just made another birdie to get to 5-under overall, two shots off the lead. The sun was shining brightly and Woods was now in serious contention, in control throughout the bag and relatively pain-free after missing last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational because of a neck strain.
Woods put the peg in the ground and stared down an island green he’d faced 68 times as a pro.
His 69th go-round included two balls in the water, seven shots overall and a career-worst quadruple bogey in front of a stunned and quiet crowd.
Woods was initially trying to hit something to 20-25 feet and leave with par, but that’s the thing about Pete Dye’s Stadium Course – you don’t have to be looking for trouble in order to find it.
“I was pretty ticked, no doubt about that,” Woods said. “I was bound and determined to get it all back and get it back to 5 (under), and I thought that would have been a hell of a fight.”
The two-time Players Championship winner got close, bouncing back with a pair of birdies and no bogeys on his back nine to shoot 1-under 71 in Round 2. He’s 3 under overall for the week and sure to make the cut, looking ahead to another early tee time Saturday morning.
That’s the other thing about the Stadium Course. Simply getting to the weekend is sometimes all it takes.
Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, said he’d already forgotten about the quadruple bogey as he walked back to the clubhouse after a nearly five-hour round.
All kidding aside, LaCava had moved on, and the plan for the next two days was clear.
“Get after it. Attack. See what happens,” LaCava said. “At this tournament, anything can happen. Guys can win just barely making the cut, so I’m pretty optimistic.”
Look no further than last year’s Players Championship, when Woods also shot 1-under 71 in Round 2 and narrowly avoided a missed cut. Come Saturday, the putts were dropping from everywhere, and that third-round 65 still serves as one of Woods’ most memorable post-fusion days. He was also counted out after two days at the British Open and eventually took the lead on Sunday.
The fact that Woods looked so comfortable for the majority of the day indicates he’s capable of a similar run. He was in the top 10 in strokes gained off the tee as of Friday afternoon and the putting looks better than it has in three prior starts, perhaps due in part to pre-tourney work with coach Matt Killen.
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“I’m very happy with the way I’ve been grinding around this golf course,” Woods said. “Overall I think I’ve putted pretty solidly and other than 17 today, I really haven’t done a whole lot wrong.”
Woods’ strokes gained total on the hole was -4.09 as the afternoon wave made the trek, meaning he lost more than four shots to the field on No. 17 alone. That’s his worst strokes gained total on a single hole since the ShotLink era began in 2003 – the only other that even comes close is a -3.914 after a quadruple bogey at the par-4 first hole in Round 2 of the 2013 BMW Championship at Conway Farms.
And he is correct that mistakes have been few and far between elsewhere.
Woods hit nine of 14 fairways Friday morning, using driver 10 times and fairway woods four times. He nailed 16 of 18 greens and has not yet three-putted this week. The overall product looks sharper, more prepared for Augusta National than it was in early 2019.
He’ll likely make one more pre-Masters start after leaving Ponte Vedra Beach, and the fact that he made the Players cut means a return to the Valspar Championship next week is likely out. Woods wouldn’t confirm as much ahead of Friday’s 5 p.m. deadline to commit, but it has to be hard to publicly decline knowing how much his presence last year meant in Tampa Bay.
A return to the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play March 27-31 in Austin, Texas, seems much more likely, especially considering Woods seems comfortable health-wise.
“The neck is good,” Woods said. “The lower back’s moving nicely. Everything’s kind of based upon that. If I’m able to move that then the forces I generate as they go up the chain, it won’t be as much.”
Woods toughed out the bad days with the neck in Mexico City and finally relented by missing Bay Hill. A brief panic ensued, many wondering if the long-term implications were more serious than Woods had let on.
That doesn’t appear to be the case. Woods will likely be playing hurt for the rest of his career, but it doesn’t look like he’s playing injured. And he made sure significant damage at the par-3 17th didn’t sink his week for good.
“He hung in there like he always will,” LaCava said. “Hung tough, made the cut. Never know what can happen on the weekend.”