Tiger Woods missed his first green of the day on the 18th hole at Warwick Hills on Wednesday, served up an indifferent chip, shrugging in semi-bemusement at caddie Steve Williams as he strolled toward his ball, then found the back of the cup from 12 feet for par.
He smiled and walked over to an impromptu news conference set up behind the grandstand, his first meeting with the Fourth Estate since his uncharacteristic flame-out at Turnberry 10 days ago. At that not-soon-forgotten British Open, where Tom Watson came so close to defying the natural order of things, Woods missed the cut at a major for only the second time in his professional career.
When he’s in a good mood, Woods will chew the fat at these gabfests forever. He may not actually say anything of note, but he’ll happily talk — which, to the assembled wretches of the media, represents a consolation prize of sorts.
When he’s not happy, interviews tend to be perfunctory and, shall we say, abbreviated.
Wednesday, Woods’ disposition couldn’t have been sunnier.
The world’s greatest golfer sure didn’t look like a man who has hit the panic button having now gone three majors without success.
Many observers were so surprised that he would even show up at Warwick Hills — Jim Furyk’s the only other player in the world top 25 in the field here — that they interpreted his entry as an indication that all is not well in the Woods camp.
Does he feel he needs to play more to get his groove back? Does he need to wipe out the memory of Turnberry as quickly as possible? He’s never played two straight weeks — factoring in next week’s World Golf Championship event in Ohio — going into the year’s final major, the PGA at Minnesota’s Hazeltine.
The truth, as almost always, is a lot less interesting.
“I would’ve played no matter what,” Woods said of the Buick Open.
The reasoning depends on whom you ask, but it seems to be mostly motivated by loyalty to Buick, Woods’ estranged sponsor.
Even though Woods and the car maker parted ways — amicably, both sides reminded me — earlier this year, he has still pocketed an estimated $72 million over nine years from Buick. So think of this as his way of saying, “Thanks for the lucre, er … Lucernes.”
It doesn’t hurt that Woods enjoys old, traditional, tree-lined courses like Warwick Hills in homely Grand Blanc (which, here in the heartland, is pronounced ‘blank,’ sans faux French accent).
His timing couldn’t have been better, either, given that after 51 years, this event is on a respirator thanks to the grim realities facing General Motors.
And so, a two-time winner (’02 and ’06) in eight visits, Woods is here to give some love and hopefully get some, too.
“I’ve always enjoyed coming here and playing here,” he said. “It’s very different than most of the places we play. It’s kind of a small, intimate atmosphere. You get to know the people.
“And I’ve played well here in the past, and hopefully I can play well here and keep it going over the next two weeks after that.”
Woods said he didn’t sit around moping too long about his British Open disappointment. Having two young kids doesn’t really accommodate moping about golf.
“You don’t have as much time to dwell on those little things when you come home, which is actually, I think, a positive,” he said.
Upon returning to Florida, he took a few days off — watching the final hour of that unforgettable tournament on television — before he got to work with swing coach Hank Haney.
“Started practicing after a few days, starting to get after it, working on things that I didn’t do right at the British Open and focusing on my game for the next few weeks,” he said.
He had to, he said, “figure out how you need to improve, how you need to get back to playing better golf.”
Haney earlier in the week joked that he still hadn’t been fired. Woods laughed Wednesday when he was asked if he still had a swing coach.
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
Woods hasn’t forgotten the six-hole stretch in the second round that he played in an astonishing seven over par, the worst stretch of his professional career.
“No, you have to analyze it and learn,” he said.
“I didn’t keep it together during that stretch. I didn’t make any birdies during that stretch to turn it around, and I made two doubles, and you can’t afford to do that. It cost me. You can’t have stretches like that and win major championships. No one does. Hopefully, I can not do that in the future.”
Winning at Hazeltine isn’t, of course, beyond him, given his pedigree.
“I just (have) got to put it together at the right time,” he said, “That’s the whole idea. You can’t win majors playing poorly. You’ve got to play well.”
If it counts for anything, Woods has at least one believer in his corner, Mr. Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll himself, Bob Seger, who played alongside Woods in Wednesday’s pro-am, perhaps the first man without matching socks to have done so.
“It was so extraordinary,” the 64-year-old rocker-turned-golf-nut said. “I mean, he hit every fairway, he hit every par 3, made every putt in the first nine holes.