PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Smiles, it was all smiles.
From his awkwardly honest response when asked if there was any part of his game that wasn’t up to par: “Not really, sorry.” To his assessment of what it takes to play TPC Sawgrass well: “You have to come here playing well, that’s the key. What I’ve done so far this year is pretty good ... better than most.”
OK, so maybe that’s not exactly “Night at the Improv” stuff, but for a guy who has endured his share of Black Fridays at TPC Sawgrass a few one-liners are a good omen entering the weekend.
And why not smile?
Woods completed his second-consecutive 67 at The Players with a 12-footer at his last, No. 9, for birdie, complete with a fist pump, although it was subdued somewhat when compared to his entire body of work.
Still, with the ghosts of Players past whipping through the trees it was ... well, better than most, to continue the Gary Koch theme.
When Woods signed his card and made his way to the Sawgrass media center he was alone in second place and one stroke behind Sergio Garcia. It was the world No. 1’s best position on The Players leaderboard since he began the final turn tied for second place in 2009; although, four years ago he was five strokes adrift of Alex Cejka at the time and finished eighth.
Woods’ troubles at the Tour’s flagship event in recent years have been well documented, but to put his first two days in context they are worth revisiting. He has just one top 10 in the last decade at the Pete Dye design, didn’t see the weekend in 2010 and 2011 because of injury and has just one victory in 15 turns at TPC. For the record, that “second” victory he referred to was the 1994 U.S. Amateur played on the Stadium Course.
All of which makes his matching 67s to start the week this year impressive on two fronts. His 10-under total marks his lowest 36-hole score ever at the so-called “fifth major,” and the first time he’s opened with back-to-back sub-70 rounds. Second, as he pointed out, he’s on form, having won three times already this season.
“I was headed in the right direction coming into this week. I played well at Augusta,” Woods said. “My last two weeks of practice have been really solid and I came in here with some confidence.”
He wasn’t perfect on Day 2 in north Florida, but he was close enough.
His two Friday bogeys – at Nos. 14 and 7 – were the byproducst of wayward drives. The 14th hole is proving to be particularly troublesome following consecutive missed drives in the hills right of the fairway.
“I wish it was a push, but it was more of a pull cut over there,” he said, this time without a smile.
That his best hole of the day, an eagle from 20 feet at No. 2, was the byproduct of a “perfectly timed” drive that he didn’t seem that pleased with also warrants consideration.
Still, there is no denying the groundswell of data that suggests the architectural Achilles’ heel that is TPC Sawgrass isn’t as much of a monster for Woods in 2013.
In the past, Woods has talked about the need to play to spots in the fairway rather than overpower TPC Sawgrass, and his judicious use of his driver on Thursday and Friday seemed to be the practical application of that theory.
A win this week would be a competitive deviation from his only other professional victory at the Stadium Course. In 2001 – fresh off his historic 2000 campaign when he won three majors and, well, seemingly everything else – he muscled his way to the winner’s circle.
This time there is a feeling of subdued subtlety, like his birdie at the par-5 ninth, for example.
After hitting his drive into the rough left of the fairway, Woods chipped up the fairway with an iron and played a relatively safe shot to the middle of the green, about 12 feet right of the pin that he converted for birdie.
“His 5-wood and 3-wood are probably as long as my driver,” said Matt Kuchar, who was grouped with Woods in Rounds 1 and 2. “It doesn’t seem to be a big need for him. If I was in that good of control of a 3-wood, like he is, I don’t think it’s necessary at all.”
From Tee to Green, Woods said he is pleased with every aspect of his game and statistically it’s hard to question that assessment. So far this week he’s proved to be a three-tool player – hitting 19 of his 28 fairways (52nd in the field) and 27 of 36 greens in regulation (T-21) and recording a 1.950 strokes gained-putting line (36th).
“I feel like I'm driving it well, hitting it well with my irons; my distance control is good, short game is really solid, and I'm making my share of putts,” Woods figured.
It’s a reality that all at once explains his position on the leaderboard, and the smile on his face.