It’s an all-too-familiar scenario for Tiger Woods.
For the third straight major, he heads into the weekend with that elusive 15th major in his sights after an excellent 1-under par round of 71 on a dastardly day at Kiawah Island, where howling winds blew the stroke average out to a whopping 6 over par.
It was the most carnage seen at a major since the bloodbath that was the final day of the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock.
But while the pretenders to his throne were decimated by the 35 mph gusts — proven winners like Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Nick Watney and Matt Kuchar failed to break 80 — only two men, the old campaigner Vijay Singh (69) and Northern Ireland’s Michael Hoey (70), who grew up in the wind, bettered Woods’ 71.
And in truth it should’ve been better for Woods, who three-putted the last hole from 25 feet for a very sloppy bogey.
Not that he was complaining too much, because he knows he made a couple hundred feet of putts Friday, continuing his excellent feel on the greens from the first round.
In fact, so far it has been very much a performance like the Tiger of old.
There have been good shots and bad shots, but a lot of par putts finding the bottom of the cup.
Under coach Sean Foley, Woods has gotten much better off the tee and with long and mid irons, but the closer he gets to the hole, the shakier he has been.
For two days on the Carolina coast, the pressure hasn’t been on his irons to deliver because he has recovered like he once did.
On Friday, Woods missed half the greens in regulation — be sure, he wasn’t the only one as Pete Dye’s reputation as the Stephen King of golf architecture is well-earned — but got up-and-down eight out of nine times.
Given the spotty nature of Woods’ short game for the past few years, it has been a long time since those words were typed.
“I’ve been driving the ball well all year, and I’ve been putting streaky,” he said late Friday night after a session on the practice green.
“Finally, I’ve married the two together, and it’s working out.”
Not surprisingly, he looked tired but happy after a ludicrously long round that exceeded five-and-a-half hours.
“I’m very pleased to be able to shoot under par today. That was the goal, anything under par or better today was going to be a great score,” he said.
But beyond the mechanics of his game, the real question with Woods always seems to be whether he’s ready to win another major.
He was tied for the lead at the Olympic Club in June but inexplicably faded over the weekend.
At the Open Championship last month, he started Saturday in the penultimate group at Royal Lytham & St Annes but, while finishing third — his best finish at a major since before the scandal — never really gave himself a legitimate shot at the claret jug.
What of this one?
“I’m right there with a chance, I like that,” he said.
“I’m playing better to where I’m going to give myself chances in major championships.”
And that is true; Woods has always believed that by putting himself into the mix come Sunday afternoons, he’ll win his share.
In his favor, too, is that Singh, at 49, isn’t the player he once was. His putting is as unreliable as ever, especially in these kinds of winds.
Carl Pettersson’s a solid tour player but hasn’t ever experienced the cauldron of a weekend in contention at a major. The same is true for Ian Poulter and Jamie Donaldson.
But perhaps Woods’ greatest advantage is that he can be aggressive off the tees at Kiawah.
Unlike Olympic and Lytham, where he conservatively chose irons off the tees to keep the ball in the fairways, there’s plenty of room here.
It’s very much a second-shot golf course, and Woods has always been strongest when he hasn’t been forced to be accurate off the tee box.
He seems comfortable, too, on the paspalum grasses used on both the fairways and greens at Kiawah.
It was interesting to hear his response when he was asked when he’d consider that he was “back”; after winning one major, multiple majors?
“I’ve been told I would never win again,” he said with a smirk, holding back to urge to remind us he’s leading the PGA tour with three wins this year.
“So I’ll just play it out, and I know that once I get into the rhythm of playing tournaments and being able to practice and work on the things that Sean wants me to work on things will get better.
“And they have.”
Of course, they could get a whole lot better by Sunday.