AKRON, Ohio – Under gray skies and with a light rain falling, Tiger Woods stood over a 26-foot par putt from the fringe behind the 18th green Friday at Firestone Country Club.
Had you spent the day merely watching the man, though – not the scorecard – you might not have known if that final putt was for a 61 or a 73.
While completing a bogey-free round that tied his own course record on the South Course, equaled his lowest competitive round on the PGA Tour and seemingly put this year’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on ice, Woods at times looked like a man playing a Tuesday practice round.
“Most of the day I was just plodding along and trying to put my ball in the right spot,” explained Woods, whose 9-under 61 matched the score that he shot on this course in the second round en route to victory in 2000.
For the 14-time major champion, Friday’s record-tying round was about control – not only the control that he displayed with iron approaches, but also the command he had over his on-course emotions. Woods spent the front nine burying putt after putt, taking just one stroke on each of the first seven greens he encountered, but did so without so much as a hand raise.
“Tiger, cheer up buddy,” said one fan in the gallery lining the 11th hole, minutes before a seemingly placid Woods sank yet another birdie to move to 7 under on the day. “You’re winning.”
It was not until a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-3 12th found the hole, gently breaking back over a slight ridge before cresting over the edge of the cup, that Woods finally relented, offering a triumphant stride and fist pump. After the round, he shed light on the clinical approach that he implemented Friday, one that recalls memories of the many multiple-shot triumphs he’s accrued over his historic career.
“I just kept thinking, you know, whatever lead I had, let’s just keep increasing this lead,” noted Woods, who now holds a 36-hole advantage of more than four shots for the 11th time in his PGA Tour career. “I think it’s at seven now, I believe. So not too bad after two days.”
Beginning his day with an eagle on the par-5 second hole sandwiched between birdies on Nos. 1 and 3, it was clear from the start that Woods was likely in position for a low number Friday in Akron. For the second consecutive round, he remained dialed-in with his approach shots, affording himself an eye-popping eight birdie opportunities of 14 feet or less. He converted six of those chances.
“I hit a lot of good iron shots today,” said Woods, in likely the day’s biggest understatement.
Still, the difference between a “typical” good round and Friday’s round that brought golf’s magic number of 59 into play down the stretch was Woods’ performance on the greens. The seven-time WGC-Bridgestone champion took just 22 total putts in the second round, with his missed putt on the par-3 15th the first of 28 attempts from less than 10 feet that failed to find the hole all week. Through 36 holes, his putting performance is a far cry from that of a player who at times appeared perplexed by the surfaces at Muirfield in his most recent competitive start.
“I’m really pleased obviously with the way I’m putting, really making some nice putts from 15 feet on in,” said Woods, who is currently second behind Luke Donald this week in putting average. “It’s just a matter of getting the speed, and I’m starting the ball on my spots. My speed has been really good the last two days.”
While the round will likely be remembered for the many birdie putts that dropped Friday afternoon, Woods admitted after the round that his afternoon took a clear turn for the better on the par-4 sixth hole. Stymied behind a tree after an errant drive, the world’s top-ranked player was forced to chip out sideways into the intermediate rough. From there, though, his approach from 188 yards found the middle of the green, and his subsequent 23-foot par putt found the hole.
“I always think that it’s probably more important to make those par putts than it is making birdies. Keeping cards clean with no dropped shots is always the key,” explained Woods, who also made an eight-foot putt to save par on the 14th hole. “I get more excited when I make key par putts than even birdies. They’re momentum builders.”
Equipped with a seven-shot lead heading into the weekend, Woods now appears in command of all facets of his game – not a foreign notion for him along the fairways of Firestone. Though short misses for birdie at both the 15th and 17th holes derailed his chances to shoot a 59, he quickly dismissed any notion that he would be leaving the course Friday night with any modicum of regret.
“Am I disappointed? Absolutely not, nope,” added Woods, who is now just the second player with four sub-62 rounds on the PGA Tour since 1983. “Sixty-one is pretty good. I’m not bummed.”
While he remained largely stoic throughout Friday’s record-tying round, Woods could not help but raise his putter in triumph after holing his final putt on the home hole, salvaging par when just minutes earlier a closing double bogey appeared realistic. It proved a fitting end to an afternoon where he quite literally made nearly everything he faced, taking a large step toward what would be his eighth career title at Firestone.
“For me, when I get excited, I get excited,” explained a smiling Woods in the media center after the round. “It was nice to end the day like that and not drop a shot, and then to post the number I posted, it felt good. And I think that’s what that emotion was.”
As he walked off the final green Friday amid echoing cheers from the surrounding galleries, two truths were evident: for the past four hours, Woods was in total control of his golf game, and if history is any indication, the rest of the world-class field in Akron is in a ton of trouble as a result.