GAINESVILLE, Va. – Maybe his chip shot on No. 5 to 5 feet for birdie was the key up and down he talked about earlier this week. Maybe that approach to 1 1/2 feet at the 12th hole was the metaphorical fork in the road he’s been waiting for.
Maybe, just maybe, that scrappy 68 on Day 1 at the Quicken Loans National will be recounted as the epiphany that wrested Tiger Woods from his long competitive swoon.
He’s certainly been waiting for it. We all have.
Waiting for the guy who has won 79 PGA Tour events and 14 majors to play like it. Waiting for the player who spent more time at No. 1 in the world than anyone else and not the guy who has plummeted to 266th.
Not that Thursday’s opening round was perfect. In fact, for the better part of four holes it felt like more of the painful same.
Woods missed the fairway and green at No. 1. Bogey. He needed four shots to reach the green at No. 3. Bogey. He needed three putts from 46 feet at the fourth hole. Bogey.
His work week had hardly started and many figured he was heading for another early exit, 3 over par, 11 shots out of the lead and 119th out of a 120-player field.
Just like that, however, the old guy made a cameo with birdies at back-to-back par 5s, Woods’ calling card when he was collecting titles and chasing ghosts not so many years ago.
From there it was something off a 2006 highlight real. He birdied four straight after the turn, marking the first time he’s run off four straight birdies on Tour since the second round of the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and he missed numerous birdie attempts coming in for a closing nine of 31.
“That's what scoring is all about. You got to score and I made a lot of key putts today,” said Woods, who is tied for 28th place and five strokes off the lead. “I ran them by the hole but I made all the comebacks and overall I felt like I hit the ball well enough to turn it around. It was nice to actually turn it around.”
Throughout Woods’ long summer of discontent he’s preached patience and process. He’s embraced the long view and stressed the fact that “scoring” will come. On Thursday, at least for one cloudy afternoon, he offered a glimpse of that progress.
The timing of Woods’ improved play at the Quicken Loans National is particularly interesting given the rumors that swirled around Robert Trent Jones Golf Club this week.
Chris Como, Woods’ swing consultant since last November, was not on site this week working his star pupil through the transition like he had been since the two paired together and numerous sources told GolfChannel.com that a split may be looming.
When asked about a possible split Woods said he and Como were still working together and his agent Mark Steinberg confirmed that the partnership continues.
Como was even scheduled to arrive at the Quicken Loans National on Friday to continue his work with Woods, an indication that Tiger won’t be spending Thursday evening basking in the glory of his newfound form.
The last 24 months have been too trying for that even after his second-lowest round of the year.
There is something to be said for good vibes. Woods has a 5-4-1 record in two Presidents Cups at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, but then there are few places on Tour where he doesn’t have some sort of favorable history.
No, there aren’t any easy answers for why Thursday was different than so many other rounds that had similarly unraveled. In simplest terms Woods explained it’s just “tournament golf.”
On Tuesday Woods talked of the need for momentum, something to build on following months of pedestrian play. One putt, one chip, one sign things were trending in the right direction.
“I'm not making that one key up and down or a bad shot instead of hitting it on a spot where I can play, rounds that should be 74 or so which I used to turn into 70s,” he said. “You need to have those opportunities and I've had chances to make those runs and I just haven't done it.”
Asked on Thursday following a round that had been delayed 90 minutes by an early afternoon thunderstorm if his play in Round 1 was an example of that type of pivotal turning point, his grinning response suggested his first-round 68 was more than the sum of its parts.
“Yup, this is one of those days,” he smiled.
After so many of the other days, Woods’ relaxed demeanor following his round was understandable. There is still plenty of work to be done but for at least one day the climb back didn’t seem as daunting.