THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - If you're reading this from a winter wonderland like Denver or Duluth or even Dallas, if you're scrolling this page with a lone fingertip cut out of your fleece-lined mittens, if all you've had to eat today were the marshmallows floating in your hot cocoa, well, those probably aren't sympathy pains you're feeling for some of the world's best golfers right now.
I know, your heart isn’t exactly bleeding for the 18 players competing in this week’s Northwestern Mutual World Challenge. Even though they’ve already endured hour-long frost delays before each of the first two rounds and Saturday’s third round featured - hold onto your furry hat – gusting winds of more than 20 miles per hour.
On the final hole, holding a two-stroke advantage, Tiger Woods stood over his ball in the fairway, cocked his club back and did one of those things that only he does. Just as he started his downswing, Woods recoiled, feeling another gust howling through the trees. After a few more minutes of guessing and gauging, he finally hit the ball. Ten minutes later he rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt to match that of Zach Johnson and retain the lead, and 10 minutes after that he was sitting in the tournament’s interview room, hands cradling a cup of coffee so hot it was still steaming.
Yes, my frozen friends, this was a day that required some heat, as the sun only thawed conditions to brisk temperatures in the mid-50s. Surely you can relate. Some locales are afflicted by two feet of snow and some are afflicted by a two-club wind, but hey, we’re all in this together, right?
After the round, in between sips of coffee, Woods was still so focused on the breezes that had baffled him all day that he uttered the word “wind” nine separate times during his news conference. It affected his drives; it affected his approach shots; it even affected his putting.
“The wind was all over the place,” he maintained, and those words were more description than hyperbole.
One day after posting a 10-under 62 that was so good it looked easy, Woods’ even-par 72 might sound sloppy by comparison, but not when we consider how Mother Nature turned Sherwood Country Club into an entirely different golf course.
OK, so it wasn’t hurricane-type conditions. It wasn’t even Carnoustie-type conditions. What is was, though, was unsettled and unsteady. There was no consistency to the wind. This was no toss-some-grass-and-take-an-extra-club wind. This was the kind of wind that if you didn’t like which way it was blowing, you just had to wait a few seconds and it would change direction.
“Well, it's just trying to get a bead on this wind because it literally is going all over the place. It gets in these canyons and it starts swirling all over the place,” Woods explained. “You miss the ball in the wrong spots here, you're making bogeys. It's very difficult to save pars. And with conditions like this, it's very difficult to make birdies. So you want to be conservative on some of the iron shots in there, but you look at, ‘Where am I going to go?’ Because the target areas are so small around this place.”
Two by two, the windblown players trudged off the course, shaken if not stirred. Only three of them – in a field consisting of nothing but top-30 players – broke 70 for the day. On the devilish par-3 15th hole, with the wind huffing and puffing, eight of them found the hazard and three of those eight found it again.
When it was all over, when the dust had figuratively settled and literally kept blowing through the air, Woods held the same two-stroke advantage he’d owned entering the day, leaving him with an opportunity to win his own tournament for a sixth and final time before it leaves for theoretically benign climates in Florida next year.
This is the time when it’s appropriate to remind you that his record when holding the outright 54-hole lead in PGA Tour events is a not-too-shabby 39-for-41. And while this one may not be considered official, he doesn’t plan on treating it any differently.
“If you get the lead it's totally different; they’ve got to come get you,” he said. “If Zach and I go out there or any of the top guys go out there and shoot the same score, I win. … I'd always much rather protect leads when the golf course is hard, because you know that pars - dump it in the fairway dump it on the green, make it par after par after par - will win the golf tournament.”
Here in the dead of winter, where it can be a little chilly and the wind blows a bit, Woods has already dealt with plenty of adversity. Certainly you can empathize, even if it’s in between shoveling mounds of snow away from your own frosty troubles.