In one of his most complete rounds of the year, Woods missed only two greens and putted for eagle four times Thursday on his way to a 7-under 65 for a one-shot lead over U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy in the Chevron World Challenge.
Woods made it all the way until the 18th hole before an old flaw crept into his new swing. He popped up his tee shot, forcing him to pitch out from behind a tree and two-putt from 50 feet to escape with bogey. Even so, he matched his best score of the year, and was atop the leaderboard for only the second time in his troublesome season.
About the only club that didn’t cooperate was his new putter, although that’s nothing new. If anything has held Woods back from at least having a few chances at contending, it’s not making many putts.
Great iron play made up for that at Sherwood Country Club.
“It’s not too often you can say I shot 65 and only made one putt, but that’s kind of what I did today,” Woods said. “I only made one putt and it was on 9. The rest were either two-putts or kick-ins. It was a good ball-striking day.”
The putt on the par-4 ninth was from about 15 feet with significant break. Equally impressive were some of his shots into the par 5s, particularly the 3-iron into No. 2. Woods hit it so clean that he twirled the club, a sure sign of a good shot.
He hasn’t done much twirling this year.
“I have not,” Woods said. “Usually, it’s point which way the ball is going to go – incoming somewhere.”
McDowell and McIlroy, the Northern Ireland duo who lost only one match at the Ryder Cup, would have been tough to beat in fourballs at Sherwood. They were paired together had would have had a best-ball score of 61. On their own, each settled for a 66.
“A lot of birdies out there between us,” McDowell said, and that includes a pair of eagles on the par-5 11th.
Dustin Johnson faltered on the back nine and shot a 69, along with Stewart Cink, who is trying out a new putter and a new putting grip with an eye toward 2011. Luke Donald and Camilo Villegas each had a 70, and no one else broke par.
With warm temperatures and a clear sky, the greens were quicker than usual. Sherwood has its share of trouble that is not hard to find, and that accounts for a few high scores. Anthony Kim is bringing up the rear at 79.
This is Woods’ last chance to win a tournament in 2010, but it looks more like he is geared toward next season. It was his second straight 65, having closed with that score in the Australian Masters a few weeks ago.
This round, however, was different.
In Australia, he made two eagles on the last four holes and played his final six holes in 6-under par for his 65. In his singles match at the Ryder Cup, he played the last seven holes in 7 under.
This time, Woods looked solid from start to … well, almost the finish.
“It was beautiful, wasn’t it?” he said of his tee shot on the 18th.
Woods missed a few shots along the way, making one amazing par on the 12th from behind the green with a flop shot that lipped out. But whenever his swing got loose, he fixed the problem during the round, not on the range the next day.
“It’s like what I told you guys earlier in the week, it’s a process,” he said. “I was putting together streaks of holes earlier – two, three, four, five holes of this – and then I’d lose it for a little bit. Eventually, I needed to get to a full round and then eventually, a full tournament. And today was a full round, so that’s a good start.”
Woods has won his tournament the last two times he played, missing in 2008 because of knee surgery and last year because of the crisis unfolding in his personal life.
Previous wins have put a ribbon on a great year. This might be different.
“If you play well, it does give you a shot of confidence,” Woods said. “I’ve played well in this event. I’ve won it a few times, and I’ve gone on to get off to quick starts the following year. Late in the season, a lot of guys are either traveling, not practicing or playing all over the globe. But for me, if I can end the year on a high note, it does give you a shot of confidence going into your practice sessions. Because you know what you were doing was working.”
Some of his peers took notice, especially seeing him at 8 under with two holes left in his round.
“I heard he had been playing well, although I didn’t see him hit a shot,” Cink said.
Ian Poulter, who had a 72, offered this on Twitter: “No2 played well today, 7 under par and leading the field at the chevron world event, not far from his best going to take some beating.”
That was a tweak at Woods having fallen to No. 2 in the world. The question has always been how long it would stay that way.