- In the marquee of marquee groupings alongside Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, Tiger Woods was visibly frustrated by his inability to keep pace on a day when many of the game’s stars took it low.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Since Tiger Woods returned to competitive golf last December, all the talk has been about how this version of the 14-time major champion is Tiger 2.0. The body is new, sure—a fused back alters your biomechanics—but so is the on-course demeanor.
At least, that’s what the narrative posited. Woods, now 42 and with a firm understanding that his career is far closer to its end than beginning, had finally softened. He was engaging with fans more, encouraging his playing partners and perhaps most surprisingly, opening up to the media. Woods was just happy to be out there competing, elated to be healthy enough to swing hard at balls in the rough, ecstatic at the possibility of contending on Tour once again.
On Thursday at the Players Championship, after Woods grinded his way to an even-par 72 at TPC Sawgrass, one thing was clear. By now, after 31 competitive rounds with this new body, Tiger has just one thing on his mind: victory. No longer is he amply satisfied by the adrenaline that comes with competing. His body feels good enough to win, and his game feels good enough to win.
“I feel like I have my playing feels back,” Woods said after the round. “Now it’s just a matter of just going out there and staying fine-tuned.”
In the marquee of marquee groupings alongside nemesis-turned-buddy Phil Mickelson and the always cool Rickie Fowler, Woods was visibly frustrated by his inability to keep pace on a day when many of the game’s stars took it low. Tiger’s 72, which was salvaged thanks to a quality bogey after smothering his tee shot into the water on 18, left him six shots behind a sextet of leaders at six-under. That group includes Dustin Johnson, who despite a stunning lack of hype is still the world’s top-ranked player, as well as smiley Matt Kuchar and Sweden’s Alex Noren.
Woods got off to yet another poor start Thursday, a mildly concerning trend that’s plagued him in recent rounds. He missed a five-footer for par on the par-3 3rd then dropped another shot at the 5th to drop to two over.
“I felt like today, the way I was hitting the golf ball—especially toward the back nine—that I should have shot something in the 60’s,” Woods said. “But I didn’t do it.”
But if there’s one thing Woods hasn’t lost throughout all these years and all those surgeries, it’s his unparalleled ability to fight equally hard no matter if he’s four under or four over. In true grinder form, Woods stayed patient with pars on 6, 7 and 8 before giving his round a badly needed jump-start by making eagle on 9. He turned in an even-par 36.
The front nine was not without its lighter moments. Fans relentlessly needled Mickelson for his CEO-like button-down shirt choice despite the 85-degree, humid Florida heat that baked Sawgrass all day. But as Mickelson’s on-course performance worsened, the gallery mercifully relented. Lefty finished with a seven-over 79 that included three double bogeys in a four-hole stretch on the back nine. Fowler fared better than Mickelson but shot two-over 74, including rinsing a ball on the famous island green 17th.
Woods and Mickelson engaged in friendly chatter on the front nine, including a laugh-filled conversation as they traversed up the 7th. As the round wore on, however, Woods’s focus shifted to manufacturing a solid score and he hardly acknowledged anyone besides caddy Joe LaCava.
It appeared Woods might do better than solid after he made a textbook birdie on 11 and hit quality approach shots en route to pars on 12 and 13, but a stroke of poor luck on 15 killed his momentum. After opting to go with driver off the tee, an aggressive play that signaled his comfort and desire to get into red numbers, Woods hit a slight push that finished right below the lip of a fairway bunker. He could not get his second to the green and eventually made a bogey 5.
He’d get that shot back at the very next hole, the par-5 16th, thanks to a delightful second from 251 yards that finished just long and left of the green. Woods then came to the 17th, where he was greeted by a rowdy-but-not-that-rowdy crowd, which witnessed him find dry land and make par.
“Toward the back nine, [the crowds] starting getting a little sparse. I think they might have tipped back a couple and got a little sleepy,” Woods hypothesized with a smile.
Then came that pull-hook with his normally trusty stinger on 18 and a final bogey.
“I got to drive it a little bit better than I did today, and obviously hit the ball closer,” Woods said when asked what he needs to improve on. “I just need to get the ball a little bit closer.”
That sounds like a player who knows there is no reason he can’t get back into the winner’s circle. Not health, not lack of reps, not lack of “feels.” And most certainly not a lack of experience in the practice of closing out a tournament on Sunday.