AUGUSTA, Ga. – If you had followed Kevin Streelman around the golf course on Friday, you would have seen him hit some spectacular shots.
You would have seen him hit a marvelous bunker shot at No. 2, an astounding approach at No. 15, a glorious sand save on the 18th. You would have seen him hit drives that split fairways and irons that stopped on greens. The reason for this is that whether you have heard of him or not, Kevin Streelman is one heck of a player.
And it is Kevin Streelman who reminds you of just how daunting the challenge is for Tiger Woods to become a great player again.
Oh, it was fun to watch Woods play on Friday. It’s a gift of his: He is fun to watch play this sport. He hit a few terrific shots, unleashed a few strong drives, displayed a touch around the greens that many feared he never would again. Those of us who have spent much of our adult lives writing about the wonder of Woods worried, honestly worried, that he would falter out there – Johnny Unitas getting sacked in a Chargers uniform, Willie Mays falling down in the outfield, Micheal Jordan cranking fadeaway jumpers for Washington. But he played quite well; so well, in fact, that you could almost hear the “Tiger Woods is back” calls echoing through the Augusta pines.
Thing is: Woods is 12 shots behind Jordan Spieth.
Thing is: Woods trails his old friend, Mark O’Meara, by a shot … and we do mean “old friend” because O’Meara is 58.
Thing is: The question has never been, “Will Tiger Woods play well again?” The question is: “Can Tiger Woods, closing in on 40, rebuild his game to the point where he is again special?”
And that’s a tougher thing because Tour players can really play. Charley Hoffman is a 38-year-old who has never finished top 25 at any major championship … but he can play, man. He is 10 under par at the Masters, the only guy threatening Spieth at the moment. He has hit great shot after great shot and made a bunch of birdies. You watch him and realize that he’s 500-times better than the best golfer you know. And Hoffman has won one tournament in the last four years.
Kevin Na can really play. He has a magical short game. He hit amazing shots all day long and shot a 66. Na has been on Tour for more than 10 years. He has won one tournament.
Dustin Johnson – holy cow can DJ play. I had a golf insider tell me once that no one – not Tiger, not Rory McIlroy, not Phil Mickelson, not anyone – has the raw talent of Johnson. He can hit the ball miles, he can drop balls around the flag, he has preposterous feel around the greens when he’s right. He made three eagles Friday. Johnson has won exactly zero major championships.
And there’s O’Meara, who last made the Masters cut 10 years ago, who hasn’t even won a Champions Tour event since 2010, who is now older than Wilford Brimley was when he was in “Cocoon” or Marlon Brando was when he was in “The Godfather.” O’Meara found a bit of magic because he’s a guy who knows the game and has earned more than $20 million playing it.
And so on. As much as we all celebrated the young Tiger for his domination of golf, the truth is we probably still underestimated what he did by winning 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour events in such a short period time. There are so many brilliant players who play every week. There are so many challenges in the game. The level it takes to win even one event is not just high but soaring.
On Friday, Tiger Woods played well. So did Streelman and O’Meara and Na. What we don’t know – can’t know – is if Woods can find that next gear, that higher level. What we don’t know – can’t know – is if he can be that good for four straight days.
What we don’t know – can’t know – is if Friday’s fine round is a harbinger of good things or a wisp of smoke from a career gone by. He is fascinating to watch but the hard truth is that a lot of guys shot good rounds on Friday. We just happened to be watching Tiger