THOUSAND OAKS, Calf. – Sixty-five strokes over 18 silly season holes does not a comeback make, but given the depths Tiger Woods has plumbed in 2010 his opening effort on Thursday at the Chevron World Challenge was anything but silly.
As the host with the most scaled the steep hill leading to Sherwood’s stately clubhouse fresh off his lone bogey at the last hole the newest member of Team Tiger offered a quick word of encouragement.
“Old residual patterns,” were Sean Foley’s words of encouragement, and it quickly occurs that Woods is no longer looking back – not at a forgettable year or the mistakes of the past.
The 65 matched Woods’ best Tour card of the year and moved him a shot clear of the Northern Irish two-ball of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. More importantly, it offered the best evidence to date that his fourth swing change is a switch for the better.
Hunter Mahan, more so than many, should know. Mahan was with Woods for the first two days at this year’s Players Championship, just days before an injury-induced withdrawal and Woods’ official split with former swing coach Hank Haney.
After Quail Hollow, where he missed the cut, and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he may have hoped for a cut to miss, The Players may have been Woods at his worst.
“Hearing him talk before (he started working with Foley, who Mahan also works with) he was just wrong,” said Mahan, who has played numerous practice rounds with Woods this season. “He can’t overcome a wrong theory.”
If Mahan’s subtle, and likely unintended, jab at Haney sounds a tad harsh, Woods’ play of late is a more substantial indictment of the old.
To put Woods’ Thursday in context, his 16 greens in regulation (88 percent) is nearly three full letter grades better than his 64 percent season average and his nine fairways hit looks nothing like the 57 percent clip he posted under duress in 2010.
“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,” Woods said. “Eventually I told you 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.”
There is also something to be said for how Woods dismantled Sherwood, not with lengthy putts and guile but with power and precision. In a line plucked from a 2006 scorecard, Woods birdied all five par 5s and reached four of the five in two shots.
He’s also regained some pop in his driver, estimating he hits his driver 7 to 8 yards longer, and was even hitting his 3-wood past Steve Stricker’s driver on Thursday.
“He’s not moving off it as much going back and looks like he has a lot more control over his club head,” said Stricker, who has played more with Woods on Tour than any other player. “It has that sound back.”
There was a concern, among observers and even Woods, that signing on to another makeover would take months, if not years, to properly gel, and the results remain very much undecided. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate the reality from the hyperbole.
The real test remains almost two months away at Torrey Pines, where Woods is likely to make his 2011 Tour debut, but he has carded rounds in the 60s in six of his last 13 rounds, and that doesn’t include his eight-birdies-in-15-holes effort on Monday at the Ryder Cup.
“The way Tiger works and the way Sean works it won’t take that long (for the changes to take),” Mahan said. “That it could take two years sounds crazy to me.”
Woods is nothing if not a realist and his 65 is little more than progress.
“It’s not totally natural yet,” Woods said. “I hit a bad shot at (No.) 10 but I fixed it. When I first started working with Sean I couldn’t fix it. Now I know what the fixes are.”
It’s a sign of Woods’ progress that Foley retreated to Sherwood’s practice tee with his other two players in the Chevron field, Mahan and Sean O’Hair. Not Woods. No need.
“Old patterns” was Foley’s assessment of Woods’ wayward tee shot on the 18th that led to trouble, but from where the world No. 2 currently sits on the leaderboard it’s starting to look more like a familiar pattern with every round.