GULLANE, Scotland – We liked this show the first time we saw it, when it was called the 2006 Open Championship and brown became the new green.
For everything that has changed since Hoylake, when Tiger Woods brilliantly bunted his way to his third and most recent claret jug, there is no ignoring the similarities – from the world No. 1’s flawless game plan and ball-striking to the brownish hue that is Muirfield.
He led after two rounds, seven years ago, at 12 under. He's only 2 under this time around, but just one back of front-runner Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Perhaps Woods is not the same player he was in ’06, but the Xerox looked refreshingly similar through two windswept days on the Firth of Forth.
Check the record, in ’06 at Royal Yellow Brick Road Woods connected with 23 of 28 fairways, 28 of 36 greens in regulation and needed 55 putts through 36 holes. On Friday, he’d hit 21 of 28 fairways, 24 of 36 greens in regulation and took 57 putts.
In fact, the only significant difference between Hoylake and Muirfield is that in ’06 Woods hit one driver. And this week, how many times has he let the big cat out?
“I’ve hit eight or 10 ... on the range,” Woods smiled.
That’s right, zip, zero, nothing. There’s been no need, not when he’s hitting his irons so well and Muirfield is serving up fairways that are Stimping at a healthier clip than most putting surfaces in America.
“I had to double check with Joe (LaCava), his caddie, to make sure that his driver cover had a driver under it. The thing hasn’t seen the light of day for two days,” said Graeme McDowell, who was paired with Woods for the first two days at Muirfield.
Instead, Woods is “flighting” his shots with frightening precision and – other than a pair of unsightly three-putts on the front nine on Friday – lag putting like Old Tom Morris, or perhaps you prefer Young Tom Watson.
If the driver is Woods’ forgotten club this week, the Texas wedge may be the most valuable implement. On three occasions on Friday – Nos. 10, 13 and 14 – Woods found himself in a spot of bother just off the putting surface and scrambled to save par with his putter.
“It's tough out there right now with the wind blowing a little bit,” said Woods, who birdied the last for an even-par 71. “It's moving putts. We had to allow for some – we needed to hold it or to move it. And that's all feel. And hopefully you guess right.”
If world No. 2 Rory McIlroy is having a hard time thinking his way around and along the bouncy turf, Woods has proven himself adept on what is truly a thinking man’s golf course, particularly when Friday’s winds shifted out of the east and freshened.
“He’s not going to be far away this weekend if he continues to control his irons like he did,” McDowell said. “I’m not sure there’s a better player in the world right now with his irons.”
Regardless of those observations and the short-sightedness of the U.K. odds-makers, this isn’t over, not by a long shot. But it won’t be a Saturday hoolie like the tempest in ’02 at Muirfield that sends Woods off course this weekend (not even a Scottish weatherman can be that far afield with a forecast); it will be his normal weekend woes at a major.
Since 2008, the last time Woods collected Grand Slam glory for those who have spent the last half decade under Bass Rock (the towering craig just off the southeast Scottish coast), his weekend scoring average in majors is 71.6 and he’s broken par on the weekend just twice in his last dozen Grand Slam rounds.
Tiger 3.0 may have all the shots, and he certainly has the mind for this kind of links exam, but the record – like his staggering mark of 14 majors before 2008 – stands above all analysis.
Although he’s won four times this season and finished in the top 5 six times in his last 16 majors, the questions remain unchanged, like a bad LP. Is this the week?
“I’m not going to win every major I play in, but I’m going to continue to try,” Woods said.
Before his Grand Slump began, he just made it look like he was going to win them all, much like he did on Friday when he plodded his way to an even-par card and a late Saturday tee time. But then he found himself in similar spots at the ’12 Open Championship and the ’11 Masters and the ’09 PGA.
Each time, however, there was a weekend wobble. Last year at Royal Lytham it was a Sunday 73 that led to a tie for third, at Augusta National two years ago it was a Saturday 70 (T-4) and in ’09 at Hazeltine it was Y.E. Yang and a closing 75 (second).
While most players looked relieved to have survived the glassy greens and dry gusts on Friday, Woods knows the downwind portion of a major championship is the hardest.
“This is going to be a difficult one,” he figured.
He would know, but on Friday he certainly made it look easy, just like he did in ’06 at Hoylake.