PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – After an uncharacteristic misfire, Tiger Woods was standing awkwardly on a downslope behind the 15th green, a bunker directly in front of him, water looming long.
He widened his stance, shifted his weight forward and hit what he thought was the perfect, high, soft flop shot into a 15-mph wind. There was maybe a 3-foot circle in which he could land his ball, and Woods missed that mark by a few inches, his ball agonizingly hanging up in the rough just over the bunker. He dropped his club, grimaced and barked an expletive loud enough for those in Ponte Vedra Beach to hear.
“That would have been stupid-good,” said his playing partner, Jason Dufner.
But it epitomized Woods’ day at the Honda Classic – on so many holes, he was mere inches from a round that could have been “stupid-good,” or at least his best of the year. Instead, he settled for a 1-under 69 – his first round in the 60s in nine attempts this season – and a spot among the top 11 heading into the final round at PGA National.
“Today was the highest score I could have possibly shot,” he said afterward. “I really hit it good.”
Those who so easily dismissed Woods as too old and too broken and too far removed from his glory days are surely sweating now.
Woods isn’t anywhere close to unlocking his best – and, to be fair, perhaps he never will – but already he is on the fringes of contention in just his fourth Tour start since August 2015.
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That bad back? It seems like an afterthought now. With temperatures climbing into the mid-80s Saturday, Woods looked fit and spry, uncorking a 128-mph swing – an eye-popping number that would have ranked first on Tour every year since 2007.
It’s not just uncontrolled fury, either. After disastrous ball-striking performances at Torrey Pines and Riviera – including a career-worst showing at Riv, where he hit only 16 greens in two rounds – Woods has put himself in the fairway more often and carved iron shots on one of the most difficult courses on Tour.
Seven of his approach shots Saturday were within 20 feet – for the week, he is second in the field in proximity to the hole – but he made just two of those attempts.
“I’m making some tweaks in my golf swing but also trying to understand what this body can do,” he said. “It’s not like it used to be – those angles are gone. I’ve had to make adjustments here and there, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of gradually building it together.
“Today was the best I’ve hit it.”
Dufner has seen plenty of Woods over the past years, playing a couple of times a week at Medalist in nearby Hobe Sound. The former PGA champion was surprised to see Woods’ pedestrian results in his first two starts.
“Today was closer to what I saw during casual rounds,” Dufner said, “which is a good indication that he’s on his way to playing some good golf.”
There were still some indifferent moments Saturday, and that’s to be expected. Woods flared a few wedge shots right. He made only 67 feet worth of putts, his fewest of the week. He missed left on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, bailing out away from the water, and made bogey. But here’s a dose of perspective: Those wedge shots still found the green, every player is struggling to make putts on these sand-filled greens and those watery par 3s are some of the most uncomfortable on Tour.
“He’s a smart guy,” Dufner said. “He’s always kind of been a strategist and a tactician out there. If he gets just a little bit better with his control and what he’s doing, he’ll be right there.”
Woods spent much of his first two starts tempering expectations, suggesting that he has only just begun his comeback, that it’ll take more time.
So much for that.
Sitting seven shots back, Woods was asked his thoughts heading into the final day. He immediately shifted into his default setting.
“I’ve got a shot,” he said.
And at this rate, he should have plenty more this year.