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Tiger goes low; Stevie goes lower
The familiar Nike golf bag on the range at Firestone Country Club told the story of how things had changed for Tiger Woods.
The famous kiwi 3-wood headcover Woods used for so long — a nod to the nationality of his longtime caddie, Steve Williams — was gone, replaced by a standard-issue Nike cover.
Hovering over Woods’ bag was a man who looked a trifle lost: his childhood friend, Byron Bell, who’s filling in as caddie for the short term after Woods fired Williams.
(Indeed, it wasn’t much of an endorsement to see Woods routinely doing his own yardages on the course.)
Williams, whose acrimonious split from the 14-time major champion has generated headlines, wandered onto the range not long after Bell and Woods and set up shop for his new employer, Adam Scott.
He didn’t even glance over at Woods.
After Woods had finished warming up and headed toward the short game practice area, he walked right by Williams.
He didn’t stop to say hello.
Maybe it was because Woods had bigger fish to fry on Thursday at the Bridgestone Invitational.
This was, to put it mildly, a big day for a man who hasn’t won since before his life was engulfed by scandal in 2009 and hasn’t completed 18 holes at a tournament since the final round of the Masters in April.
Despite his gung-ho pre-tournament assurances, there were enormous question marks hanging over him.
Would his injured knee and Achilles - which forced him to limp off after nine holes at The Players in May - hold up? And if they did, would he bring any kind of game to Akron given how long he‘s been away from the game?
By and large, Woods — excuse the pun — answered the bell.
He shot a 2-under-par round of 68 and even if Wednesday’s heavy rains left Firestone soft and accommodating, it was still enough to leave him in a tie for 18th.
I asked him if he felt he was back. Whatever ‘back’ might mean.
“I felt back on that first tee,” he said.
“It felt awesome.”
There were several positives for Woods to take into the rest of this week and next - when he plays in the year’s final major, the PGA Championship in Atlanta - but the most important one was that he once again seemed like he wanted to be playing golf.
It’s been a long time since Woods — especially at non-majors — has appeared as the focused, single-minded champion who dominated a sport for 13 years.
But his reaction after he made several key par saves on the front nine showed just how much they meant to him.
He not only got his juices flowing, but he hit the ball with abandon — as opposed to steering it as he’s been prone to do — and the results were impressive. Sometimes, too impressive as he often hit shots too far.
“I hadn’t really gone at it yet until basically today,” he said.
“I was just kind of plodding away, just kind of hitting shots. Today was just, ‘Let’s go, let’s go play, just put everything aside and let’s go give it a go and try to post a low number’.”
He expects more of the same on Friday morning (9:50 a.m. ET), when he returns for his second round.
“I’ve got the competitive feel now,” he said.
“I know what it feels like to get into the flow of the round, the rhythm of playing and walking, just the flow of playing tournament golf, which is way different than zipping around in shorts and a cart.”
But as solid as Woods’ round was, it still left him six shots behind the first-round leader … Adam Scott.
In a touch of irony, Scott immediately paid kudos to Williams, who was on Woods’ bag for all seven of his victories here.
“He just seems to have a lot of good rounds in him around this place, that’s for sure,” said Scott.
“He didn’t think it was a big deal to shoot 62. It was normal.”
Scott, a laid-back Aussie who’s among the most liked players on the tour, wasn’t interested in weighing in to the estrangement of Woods and Williams.
“I don’t think it should be awkward,” he said of his relationship now with Woods.
“I mean, this kind of thing happens on the tour. It happens a lot every year with everyone, and just because it’s Tiger and Steve, I’m not going to treat it like it’s anything different than anyone else going through this.
“I don’t have a problem, but if he has a problem, then he can definitely tell me.”
Even so, I asked Scott if he felt there was any extra motivation from Williams on this day?
“Maybe,” he said, breaking into a smile.
“I’m sure he feels good about today.”
He wasn’t the only one.
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