DUBLIN, Ohio – As Wednesday’s go on the PGA Tour this one would qualify as a good news day, notable for many reasons but not the least of which was Tiger Woods finding fairways and commissioner Tim Finchem finding a sense of humor.
News item: The 2013 Presidents Cup will be played at Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village. And why not? The weather in the fall can’t be any worse than what passes for early summer in central Ohio and, the most compelling reason to celebrate the move, Muirfield Village isn’t the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, the non-descript U.S. home of the matches for too long.
News item: Woods said he has no plans to hire a new swing coach following his high-profile split with Hank Haney after last month’s Players Championship. From there, the world No. 1 went directly to the practice tee and set up shop next to Steve Stricker, perhaps the best Tour action to emulate if one was so inclined.
News item: To open Wednesday’s press conference Finchem pointed out how influential Nicklaus has been in the development of the Presidents Cup, but not before pointing out he captained the 1998 team, “Which was the only time the United States lost,” he smiled. Ba-da-boom.
News item: Woods hit five of seven fairways in the Skins Game, some key putts and, perhaps for the first time this season, looked comfortable on the golf course and in his own skin.
To be certain, Wednesday’s Skins Game was goofy golf at its most inane. Two five-somes – which, by the way, is not the cure for slow play on Tour – with the lead group, which included Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson, getting the historical nod in the Grand Slam category. Even with Woods (14), the trailing group fell two majors behind Nicklaus (18) alone.
But then maybe a little silly golf, to say nothing of the friendly confines of Muirfield Village, is exactly what Woods needs right now. He’s at his best when he is playing the game, mixing it up with the frat brothers. Nothing like the guy who is one MDF (made cut-did not finish) away from the acronym slam this season following his missed cut (MC) at Quail Hollow and withdrawal (WD) at The Players.
On the first tee Nicklaus joked to his caddie, “Give me a long ball, that little round white one is not doing it for me.”
Woods would have settled for a straight ball, or at the very least a reason to talk about his game instead of the litany of distractions that have dominated the conversation since Nov. 27.
There’s no way to know if Fun-day’s match was the tonic for what ails Woods, but it was a start. A reason to look forward to Thursday, to Sunday, to this month’s U.S. Open.
“I just want to play four rounds,” Woods admitted with only a hint of hyperbole.
Woods won the first hole with a birdie – the first thing he’s won, to be honest, in quite some time – the second with an eagle and the “B” flight with a chip-off effort that rolled within a putter’s length of the hole, a feat none of the others in his five-some came close to matching. For the record, the title went to Phil Mickelson who took nine skins, $50,000 but no World Ranking points.
Woods wasn’t perfect, not like he was last year at Muirfield Village when he crafted his best round of the season on Sunday – 14-of-14 fairways hit, 13 greens in regulation and just 25 putts – to win his fourth grey jacket.
On Wednesday he hit his approach into the water at the par-4 14th hole and cracked, “I’m going to hang out (away from the hole), while the real pros play up there.”
But there were flashes, like at the 17th hole when he flew his playing partners by some 50 yards with the day’s longest and straightest drive. There was no prize for that effort, not even a skin after a poor approach shot, but it’s something.
Officials should rename the Wednesday’s Skins Game the Barney Frank Invitational following the congressman’s well-publicized criticism last year of financial institutions which prompted Morgan Stanley, the Memorial’s presenting sponsor, to ditch the normal Wednesday pro-am for the economically appropriate Skins Game.
But for Woods Wednesday was something of a rehab start. A low-key confidence boost on a course he has a profound appreciation for as he readies for Pebble Beach.
Although Woods dismissed the importance of Wednesday’s effort, for Stricker, who has played more Tour golf with Woods than anyone else in the last year, it was a reason to be optimistic.
“He’s hitting it great, the swing looks great,” Stricker said. “What he did to start the round, that was something. He’s had some time, his health is back in order.”
It remains to be seen whether Woods is ready to reestablish golf’s world order. But on a busy news day in central Ohio, it was a start.