SYDNEY – Just about the time the clouds broke and the winds shifted at The Lakes Golf Club on Thursday Fred Couples paused on his way to the ninth green, his last of the day, and glanced to his right. With Tiger Woods waiting on the first tee and Adam Scott stalking his approach shot in the fairway the American captain was momentarily fixated by the scene.
Whether by order or overt urging Captain America persuaded Woods that he needed to play this week’s Australian Open. He needed the “reps,” and Couples needed some sign that the former world No. 1, now two seasons removed from a victory of any kind, was trending in the right direction.
What Couples saw on Thursday in blustery conditions could only qualify as progress. Despite a slow start and a stingy putter Woods signed for a 4-under 68, one of the best rounds from the wind-whipped afternoon wave and his first bogey-free effort since an opening 69 at Torrey Pines this year.
“I hit it really good today. That’s exactly how I’ve been hitting it at home,” said Woods, who is tied for eighth and three shots off the lead. “With these conditions it was very easy to make a couple of bogeys and get it going in the wrong direction.”
With the lone exception of a wayward drive at the third that resulted in a scrambling par from under a gum tree, Woods didn’t have much need to worry about making bogeys. Unfortunately his putter wasn’t giving him much of a chance for birdie early in his round.
He lipped out three times on the front nine, missing birdie putts of 10 (No. 1), 15 (No. 5) and 6 (No. 6) feet and turned in 1 under. But The Lakes’ closing loop is built for speed with three par 5s and a drivable par 4 and Woods birdied three of his first four holes on the back nine.
If Woods was pleased with a swing that made the long trip from south Florida to Sydney, he was even more satisfied by his ability to stay patient on an afternoon that felt more like an Open Championship.
It was a repertoire that included the new version of his patented stinger shot, crucial on Thursday considering the conditions and a short layout (6,879, par 72) that favors straight over strength.
“I’m in a position to hit (the stinger),” Woods said. “I hadn’t been in a position to hit that shot.”
Nor has he been in a position to watch the leaderboard in some time, a harsh truth that likely prompted Couples to suggest Woods add some starts to his fall schedule. But that pedestrian tie for 30th at the Frys.com Open probably wasn’t what “Boom Boom” had in mind when he selected Woods with one of his captain’s picks.
Thursday, however, was more in line with what Couples had in mind.
In practical terms whether Woods has a relapse the rest of the way really doesn’t matter. On Thursday he would have played Jason Day, considered by many one of the anchors for next week’s International squad, to a draw had the two been playing match play and he easily would have beaten Robert Allenby (5 and 4), the third member of Thursday’s pairing and one of Greg Norman’s captain’s picks.
On paper Woods’ round had the markings of something even better. He hit 14 greens in regulation and 8 of 14 fairways, although the confined Lakes layout did allow Woods to favor fairway woods and long irons off most tees. It was a card marred by 29 putts, yet he even took the long view when asked about his balky putter.
“I had four lip-outs early but I was hitting good putts,” Woods reasoned.
On Friday the forecast is in Woods’ favor with the winds expected to calm and the low scoring likely to continue, ideal conditions for what amounts to a Presidents Cup preamble. Birdies and clean scorecards will win matches at the Presidents Cup and until Thursday Woods hadn’t had enough of either in his long climb back from injury and indifferent play.
Among the throng that trailed Woods’ every step on Thursday was a man with a homemade sign that read, “Tiger Woods is the world’s greatest golfer.” His scorecards of late and the World Golf Ranking math would suggest otherwise, but from Couples’ perspective he saw signs that his plan was finally coming together.
Watch Round 2 of the Australian Open on Golf Channel Thursday at 8PM ET.