POTOMAC, Md. – In the arc of Tiger Woods’ most recent comeback the progression back to competitive relevance has been both patient and predictable.
From those early days at the Hero World Challenge when he preached patience and cautious optimism to more familiar comments in recent weeks suggesting he’s ready to dive into the deep end of the competitive pool and win on the PGA Tour for the first time in nearly five years. “I think as the years progress, I'm not that far away from putting it together where I can win,” he said on Friday under a blazing summer sun at the Quicken Loans National. “Right now I'm only four back. The scores aren't going to be that low, the golf course is getting a little bit more difficult. Again, just be patient with it and a long way to go.”
That’s light years from where we began, from those uncertain days last December in the Bahamas when he reasoned, “I don't know what the future entails.”
This week’s Washington, D.C., stop is Woods’ 11th official event and with each passing week those unknowns have been drawn into focus. Each tournament has been a test of his swing and his body and even his competitive zeal.
He played back-to-back weeks in February – on two coasts, no less – as the ultimate beta test of his surgically fused back.
He pieced 3 1/2 solid rounds together at the Honda Classic and closed the gap even closer at the Valspar Championship when he lost to Paul Casey by a stroke.
Although his consistency hasn’t been what he’d like in the chapters since Florida - specifically his putting which prompted Tiger’s wholesale change to a mallet-headed putter this week at TPC Potomac - each missed opportunity has added one more check on his comeback itinerary.
It is telling that those who have watched Tiger from the best vantage point don’t see the same guy who made red and black a Sunday staple. Players like Marc Leishman, who accompanied Woods for his first 36 holes this week, now see a different type of player, a player who no longer relishes in pulling off the impossible because he’s slowly proven what’s possible.
“He hasn’t been in too many situations to show that lately,” said Leishman, who was also paired with Woods for the first two rounds in April at the Masters. “He could put himself into really bad spots and make birdie, but he hasn’t put himself in many bad spots the last two days which is a good thing.”
Friday’s 5-under 65 was the most recent example of this new version. Tiger hit 10 of 14 fairways, 13 of 18 greens in regulation and was among the top 10 in the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green. That he made 122 feet of putts, nearly triple his Day 1 total, was more a testament to ball-striking than it was his newfound form on the greens.
There were certainly plenty of highlights and reasons to cheer, like Tiger’s chip in for birdie at his ninth hole (No. 18), but there were far more clinical golf shots. He spent the vast majority of the day pin high, which in Tiger’s world is like a warm blanket on a cold day.
The putter - whatever version may be in favor on a particular day - may cool and heat up at it’s own pace, but it’s Woods’ machine-like ball-striking that’s starting to push him closer to the competitive edge.
“From the Masters to here, he’s hitting everything a lot better. His irons are spot on, he’s hitting a lot of 10-foot birdie putts, he’s got his driver sorted out. Everything is looking good,” Leishman said. “I can’t see a reason why he can’t win fairly soon. He’s very, very close.”
Whether Tiger is 36 holes away from that ultimate benchmark, and Tour tilt No. 80, depends on how far along the comeback arc he’s travelled. Success to this point has best been measured with a dollop of perspective, but eventually even Woods’ own optimism will be tested.
Against a relatively weaker field than he normally plays on a golf course that is just demanding enough to keep Tiger’s interest, the final check mark could be waiting on TPC Potomac’s 18th green on Sunday.
“I'm not that far back. I'm in a similar position to where I was at Valspar,” said Woods, who was tied for 10th place when he completed his round. “The scores aren't going to be that low and it's going to be a tough weekend. It's going to be hot, it's going to be long grinds. It will be over 100 degrees and it will be a long weekend mentally and physically.”
That seems about right for a player that has grinded his way, both physically and mentally, back into the competitive conversation. As Tiger has progressed in this comeback the learning curve has narrowed, the bar moved progressively higher to where only a single high-water mark remains to complete the arc.