AKRON, Ohio – For all of the celebratory fist pumps and not-so-under-his-breath monosyllabic mutterings that we’ve witnessed from Tiger Woods over the years, the natural default setting of his between-the-ropes demeanor is that of pure stoicism, that famous steely-eyed glare dominating his competitive persona.
Look closely, though, and you can see subtle alterations in his expression during the course of a round. On some days, when he’s finding fairways and the putts are falling, Woods becomes more intense as he continues, gathering inner momentum with every stroke. On other days, when things aren’t going his way and the score leaves something to be desired, the changing image is altogether different.
Friday was one of those other days.
On a Firestone Country Club course that has served as host for seven of his victories, Woods followed an opening-round 70 with a 2-over 72 that left him 13 strokes off the lead. It was a day that featured a little bit of everything – a veritable cornucopia of poor play, if you will – from pulled drives to imprecise approach shots to more missed putts than he’d like to remember.
Throughout the round, his demeanor underwent various stages, based on how he was playing. Maybe none should come as a surprise, but they were all on display.
Stage 1: Focus
Some players stroll to the first tee humming a tune or chatting up their caddie. Tiger enters like a boxer getting into the ring, save for the entourage and the robe.
Look at the man prior to his first shot of the day and you may believe it’s downright impossible for him to not hit one on the screws. If that notion existed on Friday, it didn’t last long, as his first drive on the 10th hole was a pull-hook that found a fairway bunker.
It led to a bogey on that opening hole and while the focus didn’t dissipate, it did lead to the next stage in his demeanor.
Stage 2: Optimism
Woods followed the bogey by playing a handful of holes during which he was making routine pars.
He missed a birdie putt from 14 feet on 11, from 21 feet on 12, from 24 feet on 13, from 18 feet on 14 and from 14 feet on 15. None of those are gimmes by any means, but the law of averages would show that Woods should – or at least could – make at least one of those to build a little momentum.
“I had good speed and just still not quite right,” Woods later said. “And the putts I did pure, they were just lipping out. So that's fine. But I just need to get more consistent where I just don't hit a bad putt. As soon as I start doing that, everything will be fine.”
And he looked like he thought everything would be fine during that stretch, too. There’s a difference between putting poorly and putting well without making anything; Tiger endured the latter for much of the day.
A 10-foot par-saving putt on the 16th hole only helped buoy that optimism … for a little while anyway.
Stage 3: Frustration
Hey, a pro can only miss so many putts before optimism turns into frustration.
It appeared that emotion was setting in on the first hole – Woods’ 10th of the day – when he ran a chip six feet past the cup, then slid the comebacker past, as well.
That bogey was followed by another one three holes later. On No. 5, he stiffed his tee shot on the par-3, only to burn another edge with his birdie putt.
Walking to the next teebox, he tells caddie Joe LaCava, “Oh, that was a beautiful putt, too.”
Stage 4: Anger
You can probably count on one hand the number of times Tiger has done the following in his professional career.
After a beautiful approach to just inside five feet on the seventh hole, he pushed his birdie putt another four feet past – then missed the par attempt, too. That’s a three-jack from less than 60 inches, which doesn’t happen very often for any PGA Tour player, let alone Woods.
“I get in these little spells where it's hot or cold,” he explained after his round. “Generally I was a decent putter over the years, but lately it's been very streaky. I'm making everything or I make nothing.”
Woods looked steaming mad walking off the green, but it passed quickly, leading to the final stage.
Stage 5: Resignation
Some of Tiger’s lighter moments during competition come when he knows he’s out of contention and can let his guard down a bit. By the time he was walking up the 17th fairway, he seemed resigned to that notion already.
“I didn't hit it good enough to be 11-under par,” he later said, “but I certainly hit it good enough to be right there in the top-five going into the weekend, no problem at all.”
Woods isn’t going to win his eighth career WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title this weekend, nor will he inch one closer to Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour victory record.
The always intense scrutiny on his performance will show that there were certainly holes in that game on Friday.
Pessimists will point out that he got a little loose at times with the driver, appeared to underclub on a few approach shots and missed plenty of makeable putts, all signs that he isn’t where he needs to be entering the year’s final major championship next week. Optimists will counter that this lackluster outing should hardly tarnish a three-win campaign that has him as the leading Player of the Year candidate right now.
After all, this was just one round. One round that didn’t happen to go Tiger Woods’ way, didn’t help his eternal pursuit toward success.
You can easily tell by examining his scorecard. But you could also read it on his face all day.