He was just working on his game, he said, and it was taking some time to come together. Golf, as every hacker can attest, is a fickle game.
But the longer he went without winning a tournament, the more that 'S' word came up. It's been almost four months since he won, after all, and he doesn't own a major championship title for the first time in four years.
Woods finally had an answer for all those doubters. A 9-under 63 Thursday that matched the course and tournament record in the 100th Western Open.
'If you've been following what I've been saying the last few tournaments I've played in, I'm very close,' Woods said after taking a one-stroke lead.
'Golf is very fickle, as we all know, and the things I've been working on are starting to come together. It's nice to be able to get that consistency of finding my swing, my path, starting to make consistent, solid shots.'
The 63 is Woods' lowest round of the year, and his best since he shot a 63 in the final round of the Disney Golf Classic last October.
He hit 10 of 14 fairways, and 15 of 18 greens. And that putter that's given him so much trouble these last few months? He needed only 27 putts for the day.
'I hit a lot of good shots today,' he said. 'Most of them were right there, flag-high. And that's the key to golf.'
Woods has already won three times this season, and has two other top-five finishes in his nine starts on the PGA Tour. For anyone else, that would be a career year.
But Woods isn't everybody else. After his incredible run in 2000 - nine victories, 17 top-10 finishes in 20 starts - he's expected to contend in every tournament he enters. So when he wasn't a factor at either the Masters or the U.S. Open, the assumption was that Woods HAD to be in a slump.
'He is not in a slump,' said Jerry Kelly, the defending Western Open champion. 'He is not going to be perfect every week. He is perfect very often. He is as close to perfect as anybody has ever seen golfing.'
He wasn't perfect Thursday, but he was as good as he's been in a long while.
Starting on the back nine, he made a 24-footer for eagle on the par-5 11th. The ball slowed the closer it got to the hole, and it looked as if it would stop just short of the cup. But it kept going, and the crowd erupted with cheers of 'Eagle! Eagle!' when the ball dropped in.
Woods pointed at the ball and broke into a grin, and he and caddie Stevie Williams bumped fists.
A few minutes later, though, those old frustrations were back. His 2-foot par putt on the par-3 12th banged off the back edge of the cup and caromed out. Woods tapped in for a bogey, and was clearly disgusted as he walked off the green.
But it would be his only bogey of the day. He came right back with a big birdie on the par-4 13th, making a tough 12-foot putt. He added birdies on 15 and 16, almost holing an 8-iron from 148 yards.
He got out of his rhythm when rain chased him off the course after he'd teed off on the 18th. When play resumed, Woods flared his second shot and then chipped from the fringe of one side of the green to the other.
But he made a spectacular save, holing his second chip shot for par.
'If there was any hole I got away with one,' he said, 'it was 18.'
Woods made three straight birdies on his final nine, then capped his round with one more, a 2-footer to match the course record.
He's one stroke in front of Vance Veazey, and two ahead of David Toms. Kelly had a 66.
While his round is sure to quiet many of his critics, Woods said he didn't take any added satisfaction from that.
'It's because of the fact that the things I've been working on came together today. That's what you have to keep in mind,' he said. 'If you get caught up in the roller-coaster ride of the media - how good you are, how terrible you are, how good you are, how terrible you are - you're not going to have a very happy career.'
Divots: Since the Western Open moved to Cog Hill in 1991, Nick Price is the only wire-to-wire winner. Price opened the 1993 tournament with a 64. ... Jim Furyk, back in the Chicago area three weeks after winning the U.S. Open, shot a 71. ... This is the second straight year the first round was delayed by rain.
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