WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – The look on his face was familiar. So, too, was the saunter from fairway to green, and the cheers that echoed across the misty expanse of The Greenbrier Classic.
Tiger Woods was in control of his golf ball – at least for one day.
Woods seemed to expend very little effort during his 4-under 66 on the Old White TPC, a stark contrast to his last three starts that have seen him either sweating cut lines or rocketing toward the bottom of the standings.
There he stood, splitting fairways with his driver and sending approach after approach on a rope toward the pin. As putts began to drop, the sentiment among the ever-growing gallery seemed to vacillate between “Who is this guy?” and “Where has he been hiding all these months?”
When Woods announced his trip to the Mountain State earlier this year, he likely didn’t anticipate the pivotal role the event now plays in his season. This was supposed to be the bonus start, a rare trek to a relatively unfamiliar venue to pile up the competitive reps that eluded him last year.
But following his startling 85 at the Memorial and subsequent bottoming out at the U.S. Open, this tournament became a life raft floating in an expanse of dark ocean. Here was a chance for Woods to lick his wounds, to rack up a few birdies and conjure some much-needed confidence before heading to St. Andrews.
With his lowest round in more than a year, Woods certainly took a step in the right direction.
Granted, one round at The Greenbrier does not absolve a season’s worth of blunders for Woods. Not even a 66, not after weeks and weeks of frustration, disappointment and rationalization.
But the game that has so humbled him during the first half of the year once again appeared easy. The smooth swing and consistent results that he showed in Wednesday’s pro-am finally showed up when the scores started to count.
This was a seismic shift from his most recent displays, even if Woods insists the product was never as troubling as the results.
“I knew I made that pattern shift at Memorial, and I wasn’t that far off, even though my scores don’t indicate it,” Woods said. “My swings don’t indicate it, but my feels were telling me that I wasn’t that far off. I was proving it to myself time and time again away from a tournament site and on the range, but my feel in my hands and body weren’t far off. It was just a matter of just getting into a little bit of a rhythm and the flow of it, and I found that.”
Buzzwords aside, the value of Woods’ opener was clear.
This was his lowest round since the 2014 WGC-Cadillac Championship, and his lowest opening round since the 2013 BMW Championship. His seven birdies were only one fewer than he compiled across 36 holes here in 2012, when he showed up at The Greenbrier with his game in much better shape but still missed the cut.
Woods found 15 of 18 greens in regulation, and his closing birdie brought him to 4 under – a cumulative score he hadn’t seen in competition since leaving Augusta National in April.
Woods played the opening round alongside friend Steve Stricker and David Lingmerth, who knows a little bit about breaking out of a slump at a moment’s notice. Lingmerth missed four of five cuts before his breakthrough win at the Memorial last month, and the Swede wasn’t shocked to see Woods’ sudden return to form.
“It wasn’t a surprise. He’s Tiger Woods,” Lingmerth said. “Tiger has been through some struggles, but he can turn it around on any given week.”
There were, of course, some costly miscues. Woods blocked his drive into a hazard on No. 17, then made what he described as a “stupid” double bogey on No. 6 following a series of short game errors.
It was following that hole, after he pushed a 3-wood on No. 7 for his third straight missed fairway, that there was a moment to consider if the round could still unravel. That a morning’s worth of progress might be wiped out by a flurry of miscues just before the closing bell.
Rather than let the round turn into a mountain of what-ifs, Woods steeled his nerves and got things back on track with his very next swing.
“I was telling (caddie) Joey (LaCava) that I felt like I was playing so well,” Woods said. “I’m not going to lose this round. I’m playing too well to let it go awry. I’m hitting the ball too well, I’m putting too well.”
And just like that, Woods seemingly began to will his ball into position as he has done so many times before. An expertly-carved approach from the rough on No. 7 barely trickled over a ridge bisecting the green and gently rolled to within 3 feet of the hole.
His birdie putt on No. 8 hung on the lip for an instant, just long enough for Woods to add a little body English and an extra fist pump when it curled in and finally dropped. His final putt on No. 9 was never in doubt, but it did supply Woods with what has lately been a rare commodity – momentum.
“Felt like if we could get it back to 3 (under) would be great,” he said. “I happened to pull off a hat trick coming in.”
Whether this sparks a turnaround or simply gets washed away in a sea of patterns, shifts and feels remains to be seen. But at least for one morning in between the mountains, Tiger Woods started to play like Tiger Woods again.