South Beach Breakthrough


DORAL, Fla. – Tiger Woods played with the bounce back in his step Sunday at Doral. You could see the effect one good shot after another did for him on the back nine.

The satisfaction in a 6-under-par 66 was written all over his face after he signed his scorecard at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

“Peaking at the right time . . . for the Tavistock Cup,” Woods said flashing a smile.

Woods needed a round like this. Yes, he needed it for the reinforcement in his swing change, but he needed it so much more for his confidence.

“No doubt,” Woods said. “Today, I hit a lot of good golf shots, and when I did miss-hit one, I knew what the fix was right away. Boom. And I got right back on my run of hitting good shots again. That feels good.”

Nobody’s going to declare that the vintage Woods is back, because we’ve seen other flashes like this in his winless 16 months. We saw his brilliant 66 in the third round of the U.S. Open last summer at Pebble Beach, his nearly flawless rout of Francesco Molinari in Ryder Cup singles last fall and his run into contention at the Chevron World Challenge in December.

But if Woods’ winning form returns, you get the feeling it won’t come all at once, but in building blocks.

After poor Sunday finishes in his only other starts this year, the 75 at the Farmers Insurance Open, the 75 at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, this was something to build on. He actually tied for 10th at Doral with his 66 equaling the best round Sunday on the TPC Blue Monster.

There is evidence of progress over his three stroke-play starts this year. He's gone T-44 at the Farmers Insurance Open, T-20 at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and T-10 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

“My trajectory is becoming better,” Woods said. “The shapes of my shots are getting tighter. The driver is still not quite there. I’m not quite shaping the golf ball like I want to yet, but I’m hitting it flush again, which is good. That’s just a matter of time before that comes around.”

The best part of Sunday for Woods may have been seeing so many putts finding the bottom of the cup.

Woods, who abandoned his Scotty Cameron putter for his backup Nike Method mid-mallet putter on Saturday and Sunday, made 5 putts of more than 10 feet all week at Doral, two of them on the back nine on Sunday. He needed just 25 putts in the final round, his fewest in any round all week. He also got up and down four of five times after missing greens.

“His distance control, Tiger gave himself a lot of opportunities,” said Thomas Bjorn, who played with Woods on Sunday two weeks after knocking Woods out of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship outside Tucson. “It just looks like he only needs to hit fairways. That’s all it is.

“He putted all right today. In Tucson, his short game was off for some reason. I think that was just an off day. It was good today, and I don’t think that’s going to leave him. There is still a little bit of work for him to do, but I think the Masters probably comes at a pretty good time for him.”

Woods needed a round like Sunday’s if only to fend off the negative energy dogging him.

With the scrutiny building over his swing changes, the intensity of the analysis of what’s wrong with him growing with those awful duck-hook and sky-ball pop-up drives on Friday, Woods needed a positive turn, even if it were in a Sunday round with no chance to win.

“Of course, it bothers me,” Woods said of not being in contention. “I want to win golf tournaments. That’s the whole idea of entering events is to win golf tournaments, and I didn’t do that this week. But I showed positive signs for the next time I play, which is a good thing.”

With Woods playing the Tavistock Cup at his Isleworth Country Club home on Monday and Tuesday, and a week later playing Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he’s won six times, this two-week run could be just what Woods needs going to Augusta National for the Masters.

Woods was asked if he thinks he’s “on track” for the Masters in a month.

“Oh yeah,” Woods said.

He was asked if he liked his chances.

“Mmmm-hmmm,” he said.

When he was his best and endured spells where his game was off, Woods always believed he was close to returning to form. He proved himself right so often, it was hard not to believe him, no matter how wayward he seemed.

It’s different now, but if Woods believes –  if he really believes – then Sunday was a breakthrough. Because breaking out of this slump seems to be as much about Woods’ confidence and belief in himself as it does his swing.