SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – At this juncture in the proceedings it is about baby steps, more so than breakthroughs.
The 1-under 71 will not have many in the field of 156 looking over their shoulders, but when your last competitive round was a 77, the worst final-card of your career, and the calendar is sneaking up on a year since your last “W,” close is always better than clutching.
It is a reality that would explain Tiger Woods’ borderline buoyant demeanor following his opening round at the 92nd PGA Championship. Or maybe it was a pairing with Y.E. Yang and Vijay Singh that featured little chit-chat. Either way Woods seemed more at ease on the course than he has been in some time.
“Everything is better,” Woods said of his game which just four days earlier seemed in need of an overhaul on a Firestone Country Club course that has been every bit the friendly confines for Woods.
For the day he hit eight of 12 fairways, 12 of 18 greens in regulation and needed just 28 putts. Not bad for a guy who spent most of last Sunday looking like he needed a mulligan, or a handicap index.
Compared with his 33-putt 77 at Firestone, Thursday’s effort at Whistling Straits was a clinic, particularly for a player who said his “speed” this year had been “awful.”
For all the focus on Sean Foley, the Orlando, Fla.-based swing coach who appears poised to assume the duties vacated by Hank Haney earlier this year, it was the world No. 1’s putting that seemed to fuel a quiet confidence on a slow-starting breezy day along the Firth of Michigan.
Woods opened his delayed first round with four consecutive one-putts, equaling the number of one-putts he had for all 18 holes last Sunday, made the turn at 2 under and weathered a wayward phase late in the round to finish just three shots off the lead held by Bubba Watson and Francesco Molinari.
If last week’s opening 74 at Firestone was Venus, his 71 on Thursday at the PGA was Mars minus the mental miscues.
“I felt like I had pretty good control of my trajectory, which was good, especially with the wind,” said Woods before heading to the range to work with Foley on a swing that has been on a crash course correction this week.
Not that Woods’ ballstriking was textbook, but then the old Tiger Woods never really was.
At the 12th hole, his third of the day, Woods’ tee shot airmailed the green to an impossible lie in the faux fescue. He hacked out and calmly rolled in his 8-footer for par. At the fifth hole he smothered his tee shot left, took a drop and got up-and-down from 100 yards. The year 2000 called; they want their Eldrick back.
Woods has won a healthy number of those Hall of Fame titles with something less than his “A” game, but he was always in the game because there was no better clutch putter and on Thursday Woods’ putter, which was benched temporarily at the Open Championship, showed real signs of life.
Foley can fix the swing. Maybe he already has, but only Woods can right whatever is wrong with his putter, be it mental, mechanical or a combination of the two.
On Tuesday Woods talked about struggling mightily with the speed of his putts this year, but ShotLink doesn’t measure such esoteric concepts. The best it can do is something called approach putt performance, which has Woods’ average lag putt coming to within 2 feet, 4 inches, or 115th on Tour.
In practice on Thursday Woods was able to roll in birdie putts of 8 feet (Nos. 10, 11 and 13) and 9 feet (No. 9), and a host of other attempts that scared the hole but never dropped.
“I felt so much more comfortable over (my putts),” Woods said. “I got my lines back. I got everything lined up where I could release the blade, toe is moving again, which is great. It felt good.”
Whether Woods’ improved ballstriking begot a suddenly calm putter or vice versa doesn’t really matter. Not at this point and not to the man who has gone seven majors without a victory, the third-longest Grand Slam drought of his career.
From the outset, Glory’s Last Shot had a last gasp feel to it for Woods. One final go to get off the Grand Slam schnied and avoid going two years without winning a major for just the second time of his career.
On Thursday, Torrey Pines didn’t seem so far away. There is a spring that has suddenly inched its way back into his step, if not his swing. If Foley really can work this fast we should get his opinion on deflation. And if Woods can keep making progress with his putter one has to believe anything is possible.
For now, however, it’s all about baby steps.