SYDNEY – We’ve seen this before, way back in 2006 when Tiger Woods bunted his way around Hoylake to one of the most tactically profound victories.
But that was two surgeries, a swing change and a sex scandal ago. A lifetime for those scoring at home and ancient history to all those who wish to write him off, or worse declare his slide into irrelevancy complete.
It’s fitting on many fronts that Woods would emerge from that wildly public slump here at the Australian Open. Fitting that on Remembrance Day the former world No. 1 has not forgotten who he was or what he could do. Fitting that it’s been two years to the week since his last victory of any kind – the 2006 Australian Masters.
On Friday Woods signed for a 5-under 67 that, all together now, could have been even better. “Felt it could have been 8, 9 (under) deep,” he figured.
No, this isn’t Hoylake, where Woods eschewed driver and put on a ball-striking clinic, and this isn’t the Open Championship, but with a 9-under total and a one-stroke lead it somehow seemed just as profound.
Sure, they tend to go the full 72 in these types of championships and there is no shortage of marquee names looking to make a game of it this weekend, but for a golf public that has had its fill of pedestrian play from Woods, 9 under never looked so good.
For two years we’ve waited and far too many have speculated. Sean Foley’s swing has been dissected and unfairly dismissed. On Friday Woods conceded there has been no epiphany with the new swing, just a steady digestion. Yet just past noon in the Sydney suburbs he hammered his second shot at the par-5 eighth hole into the breeze and to 35 feet from the hole.
“Hit that good,” Woods smiled. “Had 230 (yards) front from a hanging lie and I had to start it at the bunker, hammer it and let it slide 3 yards.”
Done, done and done.
He didn’t make the eagle putt, but somehow it seemed he didn’t have to. For all those who wondered if Woods would ever rediscover the mojo that delivered 14 majors in a decade of work it was the type of shot that sent a message.
“He hit some shots that the top 1 percent of Tour players can’t. Especially on (No. 8), a low bullet . . . not many guys can hit that,” said Jason Day, who was paired with Woods for the first time in his young career for Rounds 1 and 2 at The Lakes.
This was the swing he’d perfected in the lab back home in south Florida but had struggled to bring to his day job. This was the confidence that had missing.
For the second consecutive day he worked the confined and quirky Lakes layout like a surgeon, punching the new-and-improved stinger into the wind, playing the percentages with irons off many tees and when he did hit driver (just three times) he executed nearly flawlessly.
He played 29 holes this week without a bogey and despite another pedestrian putting day (30 putts) found himself atop a leaderboard for the first time since Sunday at this year’s Masters.
Since Woods officially teamed with Foley prior to last year’s PGA Championship he’s preached patience and process, a truth compounded by extended stays on the DL in consecutive years.
Whether he “owns” the new action remains to be seen, but through two turns in Oz the action no longer appears mechanical or forced.
“I have way less thought now and more reaction to the target and that’s a very good thing,” Woods said. “I was close to what I have now at Augusta, but it still wasn’t there. I have to understand this motion and it’s taken some time to get here.”
Maybe even more compelling is that Woods has emerged this week despite all the slights against him of late, be they real or perceived, or maybe it’s because of them.
From his estranged former caddie Steve Williams to Greg Norman, it’s become good sport in our sport to announce the end of the road for the former alpha male. Woods took the high road on Friday when asked if he enjoyed any additional satisfaction from his play.
Others, however, know better.
“Tiger is known for shoving things down people’s throats and he’s certainly done that now,” Day said.
The only question remaining is whether the one-time closer can remember how to finish. It’s been 24 months since he last had to shut down the side when it counted, on a Sunday. Along with a completely retooled swing some suggested he would need to rediscover how to finish.
The next 36 holes will answer that question, but Woods had no doubts on Friday.
“It comes back,” he said. “I’ve been there a few times and understand how to do it and all the things that can happen I’ve experienced a lot of them.”
This is not Hoylake and no one is willing to declare the comeback complete just yet, but as he marched toward the eighth green it was impossible not to consider that the wait was finally over.