WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Try to look beyond the buzzwords.
Get past the release patterns, the baseline shifts, the feels. Sift through the ever-changing lexicon and you’ll come to two conclusions about Tiger Woods following The Greenbrier Classic: Some progress has been made, but a very long road still lies ahead.
Woods managed to clear more than a few benchmarks during his week, from baby steps like not bogeying the opening hole to larger keys like making the cut and shooting three rounds in the 60s. His final round, specifically, was the closest Woods has appeared to his former self in quite some time.
He missed only two fairways and three greens, shooting a 3-under 67 that was probably the highest possible score he could have gotten out of ball-striking that harkened back to sunnier days.
“It’s the best I’ve hit it in a very long time,” Woods said. “I had it shaped both ways, right to left, left to right. I had it all on call today.”
Combined with an opening-round 66, Woods left the Old White TPC with a handful of superlatives: his first bogey-free scorecard in 55 rounds, his lowest 72-hole score in relation to par since the 2013 BMW Championship and his fewest strokes for four rounds since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, site of his last victory.
He missed only 16 greens in regulation all week, and Woods’ average approach shot ended up less than 24 feet from the pin – the best proximity of the entire field.
Woods had reason to smile after his final round, seemingly a rarity these days, and was jovial in his post-round comments despite a frustrating day on the greens. After speaking with the media, he walked up the brick patio that skirts the first tee box at The Greenbrier and jumped into a courtesy car.
But only a few yards away, Justin Thomas and David Hearn were getting set to begin their rounds, with the quartet of overnight co-leaders still to tee off. For the third time in his last four starts, Woods completed his final round before the tournament really began.
Woods’ finish this week will finally earn him a few world ranking points, the first time he has added to that ledger since the Masters, but it won’t be enough to stop his tumble down the OWGR, where he entered the week at No. 220.
He’ll earn a handful of FedEx Cup points, but still faces a nearly insurmountable deficit with the playoffs now only eight weeks away.
This was incrementally better, sure. But even Woods admitted that such a slant is due to just how far he has lowered the bar this year, especially after bottoming out at Chambers Bay.
“Made a little bit of progress since last time I played,” Woods said Wednesday before the tournament began. “Obviously not really saying much.”
Woods insisted throughout his post-round comments Sunday that his turnaround began last month at Muirfield Village, where he suffered through a third-round 85.
“I’m excited about what I was able to do at Memorial,” Woods said. “Even though I shot those high numbers, by shifting the baseline like I did, consequently I’m here now, in this position, so I’m very excited about that.”
That would certainly create a compelling narrative should it come to fruition: that in the midst of one of his worst performances, Woods found the spark to ignite his return to form. But he’s still a long way from turning that into reality.
We’ll know more about the strength of his game in two weeks, as Woods heads to a course where he has dominated like few others. St. Andrews is one of the game’s best litmus tests, and there Woods will face a high-stakes opportunity.
A high finish against a strong field in the season’s third major could jump-start his ascension in the world rankings, but a disappointing effort would only plummet him further down the standings with only two more official starts left on his 2014-15 schedule.
After his game appeared in shambles in Seattle, Woods showed this week that all is not yet lost. But the gap between where he now stands, and where he wants to be, is bigger than the ocean he’ll travel across next week.