Arjun Atwal is Tiger Woods’ closest friend in golf.
The two were paired Sunday in the final round of the Frys.com Open at CordeValle, where Woods got off to a hot start but ultimately cooled off, settling for a third straight 3-under-par 68 to finish in a tie for 30th.
“He’s looking good,” Atwal said, “The first seven holes (in which Woods made five birdies), he looked like the old Tiger.”
“He’s got to be encouraged.
“Now it’s just that he has to play more.”
And therein lies the rub.
Woods isn’t scheduled to play again for a month.
The last thing he needs in a year in which he’s played just 10 competitive rounds since April — because of injury — is another layoff.
Woods grew better — and visibly more comfortable — with each passing day at this second-tier event in the rolling hills south of Silicon Valley.
His 17 birdies in the final three rounds were bested only by the two men who went on to the playoff that would never end, Bryce Molder and Briny Baird.
But Woods finished well off the pace because he made too many mistakes, too many soft bogeys.
“The bogeys, he’ll get that organized by playing more,” Atwal said. “You have to keep competing, and that’s how you get sharp and take care of those, and he knows that, too.”
Woods won’t play again until the Australian Open in Sydney on Nov. 7, followed by the Presidents Cup in Melbourne the week after.
Yet, next week, the final event of the PGA Tour season — the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disneyworld — will be played near Woods’ old backyard in Orlando, Fla.
Why wouldn’t he try to build on what he did here and tee it up in an event he’s won twice before?
“I can’t,” Woods said, “I have family obligations.”
Don’t we all?
Woods has a strict schedule when it comes to the custody of his two young children. And he certainly doesn’t want to do anything to endanger the child-sharing agreement he has with his ex-wife, Elin Nordegren.
But surely he could find the time to play a golf tournament in Orlando?
He is, after all, earning his living.
I asked Atwal whether he’d try to talk Woods into playing at Disney.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, breaking into laughter. “You know him; he wouldn’t listen.”
Woods is notoriously as stubborn as they come.
But he should start listening to his friends’ advice.
The third player in Woods’ group Sunday was Australian Rod Pampling. The last time they played together was, coincidentally, the last tournament Woods won: the 2009 Australian Masters in Melbourne.
Pampling, too, was impressed by what he saw at CordeValle.
“I think he’s getting very close,” Pampling said. “The biggest thing I saw today is that he’s mentally back into it.
“That’s where I think the last few events he’s played he just hasn’t looked like he’s been into it, but today, especially early on, he was really focused in there.”
Pampling said what also impressed him was that Woods was getting his distance back off the tee.
“He’s hitting some big drives again. That’s when you know he’s playing good, when he’s not hitting it hard but that thing’s just out there,” he said. “He hit some bombs out there today.
“He’s driving it much better than he was then (in 2009).”
Woods’ analysis of the week was that it was a step in the right direction but that he wasn’t quite yet where he needed to be to compete.
“Unfortunately, there were a couple of times where I kind of didn’t get the momentum going when I had a couple of chances to make putts, or I hit a bad shot,” he said.
“(But) I haven’t played much. That comes with the competitive flow, understanding the situations and the feels, and game time’s a little bit different (from practice).
“It’s getting there.”
How close is he?
“It’s a process. I don’t know what the end is,” Woods said. “That’s one of those things when the career is all said and done, then you know.
“But I’m in the midst of it, and I know I’m getting better.”
It would behoove him to not take too long because there’s a new generation of golfers looking to step over him in the way he stepped over players in their mid-30s when he burst onto the scene 15 years ago.
Bud Cauley, a confident 21-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., who packs a tremendous amount of game into a small frame, finished third at the Frys.com.
He turned professional in June, but he’s already close to securing his PGA Tour card for next year. Only six players in history have done that — including Woods.
Cauley was 7 when Woods changed the face of golf at the 1997 Masters. He doesn’t remember watching the broadcast.
Maybe that’s because he’s looking to make his own history.
I asked him what he’d have said two years ago if someone had told him he’d have finished higher than Tiger Woods in a tournament.
“I would have said, ‘Perfect,’ ” he said.
“You know, Tiger is the best player of my generation, obviously, but I turned pro because I want to come out here and compete.”