DORAL, Fla. – Before professional golf became so unpredictable and Europe claimed the top of the World Golf Ranking as its own, before Tiger Woods began a two-year-and-counting victory slide it was often impossible to distinguish between where one tournament ended and another began for Red Shirt.
One sliding 60-footer at Bay Hill begot a ball-striking masterpiece at Muirfield Village. Next thing you knew we were at East Lake going through the motions. The trophies differed but the blur of Woods’ brilliance left all but the most memorable of his 71 Tour tilts virtually indistinguishable from the next.
But those days seem like ancient history in the post-November 2009 world. What is past is no longer prologue, even in the wake of Sunday’s closing 62 at the Honda Classic for his best Tour finish (T-2) since 2009.
On Wednesday Woods was asked about riding his new-found momentum into south Florida, but even the former world No. 1 knew he was starting from scratch at Doral.
“It's a whole new golf course. It doesn't count. That tournament's over with, whether you missed the cut or win the tournament, it's over,” Woods said. “Now we are on to a new week, a new golf course, and I have to learn it and be ready.”
The only similarities between Woods’ closing act at PGA National and opening salvo at Doral were the fierce south Florida winds. He needed 10 more shots to round the Blue Monster on Thursday (72) and four more putts (30), hit four fewer fairways (seven) and three fewer greens in regulation (11) and is four strokes further off the lead.
It wasn't a different guy, just a different day. A rough, windswept day that left most competitors wanting for a standing “10 count” and sent Woods to the practice tee after his round.
It didn’t start out that way. There was a roping second shot at the par-5 first to 2 feet for eagle. At that point it could have been easy for Woods to slip into old habits when weeks ran together. Dating back to Sunday’s finale at the Honda Classic Woods had played his last three holes in 5 under and was, however briefly, tied for the lead.
At Doral, however, they like to go all 72 to decide a champion and momentum seems to go only so far these days. Woods bogeyed Nos. 4 and 5, needed a carving 3-wood through some palms and over a pond for birdie at the eighth and turned at even par after a three-putt, his second in five holes, at the ninth.
“I got off to a nice start today, hit a lot of good shots, just made a couple mistakes with iron shots and cost me two shots right in a row there at 4 and 5,” said Woods, who is tied for 25th and six shots behind front-runners Adam Scott and Jason Dufner. “After that, I played some really solid golf and just couldn't quite make enough birdies.”
He didn’t play poorly. He just didn’t play like he did on Sunday at the Honda Classic, the way we’ve come to expect him to play when things are going well.
He was fooled by shifting winds and subtle greens and precarious lies. He missed birdie putts of 25 feet (No. 10), 10 feet (No. 13), 25 feet (No. 14), 12 feet (No. 15), 16 feet (No. 16) and 15 feet (No. 17).
Complicating things, he hit a push-block-fade on the 18th hole that nestled down into the rough along the first fairway. He fared better than Sergio Garcia who was paired with Woods and hit a pull-hook-double cross into the water off the tee. El Nino signed for a triple-bogey 7 to complete a run that featured five consecutive bogeys starting at the 13th hole.
Woods avoided that kind of carnage and didn’t sound like a man in search of answers, just one who needed a few fortunate bounces.
“For some reason I kept hitting every drive in the first cut so it compounded the problem,” Woods said. “Is it going to fly, not going to fly; is it going to go through the wind or is it going to get killed by the wind? Just kept compounding the problem, and I had to consequently play very conservative on a lot of the shots.”
Conservative was probably not what the gallery that trailed Woods and braved intermittent showers expected out of their man following Sunday’s show at PGA National. But more of the same doesn’t seem to be an option anymore either.