PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – When day broke at TPC Sawgrass on Friday the not-so-farfetched thought that Tiger Woods had lapsed into a Benjamin Button existence was hard to shake.
Woods hadn’t missed consecutive cuts since his amateur days, yet there he was, tied for 100th after an opening 2-over 74 on a golf course that has been anything but friendly confines to the 2001 champion in recent years. It wasn’t a question of whether he would make the cut so much as it was how he would make it to the finish line on Sunday at The Players Championship for the first time since 2009.
Following last week’s “MC” at the Wells Fargo Championship the thought occurred that Woods was devolving Benjamin Button style. Back to territory that hadn’t been touched since he was a skinny kid from southern California.
That Woods set out well past the lunch hour in his quest to keep from missing his first cut at the Tour’s flagship event only complicated things. The winds were swirling, the ground was baking to bouncy perfection and when he played his first seven holes in a relatively uneventful even par one could almost hear “Air Tiger” warming up for another premature trip to south Florida.
But amid the day’s worst winds he began his climb back to relevancy, back to this decade.
He banked his tee shot at the par-3 eighth to 11th feet for birdie, using the kind of local knowledge one wouldn’t expect from a player who has withdrawn from The Players with injury the last two years.
At the ninth he pounded driver, roped a long iron into a greenside bunker and made birdie from 6 feet to improve his inexplicably pedestrian play on the par 5s to 2 under. He added birdies at No. 6 (6 feet) and 11 just as things were becoming touch and go for many at TPC Sawgrass.
“(The wind) was all over the place,” Woods said. “It was strong enough where we could get a bead on where it was above the trees. It stayed constant, but down in them, it was swirling a little bit.”
He played the rest of the way in even par, an inward card highlighted by a roping hook off the pine straw left of the 16th fairway to the front fringe for an easy birdie to improve to 3 under on the par 5s.
Whatever happens the rest of the way, know this: Woods has lived and died during his career on the par 5s. It’s the byproduct of a power advantage he still holds over most of his Tour frat brothers and a short game, at least until 2010, that almost never gave away the easy birdie.
“I had to play them better than I have been playing par 5s, period,” said Woods, who hit 9 of 14 fairways, 15 of 18 greens in regulation and needed 29 putts on Friday.
“Good drives here, you're hitting irons to just about every par 5, Those four par 5s you've got to have iron to the green. We as players just have to take care of the par 5s.”
It was a mandate more so than wishful thinking. And it’s why he bolted to the practice tee late Thursday with swing coach Sean Foley to “tighten things up.” And why, after all the Day 1 hand-wringing, he will be around for the weekend and is a touchdown out of the lead.
When it comes to Woods there is dangerously little middle ground, he’s either washed up or back, his swing is either jacked up or heading to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. Lost in that dogmatic certainty, however, is the nuanced geometry of a dramatically new and different swing.
Just ask a player who has endured a similar change when he first set out with Foley and fought the same demons. Hunter Mahan went through it five years ago, and has watched as Woods has adapted to something as foreign as, well, missed cuts.
“Your instincts are a tough thing. I know Tiger's instincts are telling him to do one thing, but he knows he has to do something different, and that's always hard,” Mahan said Tuesday.
“It takes time. It peaks, comes out in pressure situations, comes out on Thursday. It doesn't come out on Wednesday or Tuesday or at home in Jupiter (Fla.). He can do it all day long; and then he comes out on Thursday, and then it's like, wait a minute, this is weird, I've got to go back to this.”
But a vocal portion of the golf world isn’t interested in the process, only the end product, and Friday’s 68 will likely do little to sway public opinion.
But know this: Woods believes he is on the correct path and no amount of exit polling to the contrary will change his mind. Woods’ plight may be a curious case, but he’s no Benjamin Button.