Confident Woods ready for Masters
It was only one good round of golf but it was enough for Tiger Woods to boldly declare that he’s on track for the Masters.
"Mm-hmmm," said Woods, nodding his head and breaking into a wide smile when I asked him if he liked his chances at Augusta on April 7-10.
It may seem a leap of faith to think a fifth green jacket’s beckoning given the mostly underwhelming performances of the past year, especially on the say-so of just one good afternoon, but the former No. 1 clearly saw Sunday’s six-under-par 66 at Doral as a glimpse into the future.
"I’m putting the pieces together," he said.
"Everything is kind of shaping up and heading in the right direction, which is good, and peaking right at the right time."
Although he was never in contention at the Cadillac Championship, Woods roared up the leaderboard with the lowest round of the day to finish tied for 10th.
It was his best result at an official PGA Tour event in nine months, since tying for fourth at the US Open.
"Of course it bothers me (not to be in contention), I want to win golf tournaments," he said.
"But I showed positive signs for the next time I play, which is a good thing."
Woods plays in the made-for-television team event, the Tavistock Cup, on Monday and Tuesday at his home course, Isleworth, in Orlando, Fla.
From there, he’ll chase a seventh title next week at the Bay Hill Invitational before heading to Augusta to mark the anniversary of his return to tournament golf after a tabloid sex scandal sidelined him for four months.
Although it’s far too early for anyone, including Woods himself, to assert that he’s back, Sunday’s round was certainly important to his evolution.
Principally because it appeared to give him a dose of what he’s been most lacking: confidence.
"No doubt," Woods acknowledged.
When he almost holed a wedge for eagle on the par-4 17th, he and caddie Steve Williams laughed and high-fived each other, just like the old days.
When was the last time that happened? When was the last time they had anything to celebrate?
Woods really found his groove on the back nine, making four of his seven birdies on the back side, but the first few holes of the round were probably more important given that he rarely gets off to good starts these days.
He had a straight-forward eagle chip from about 30 feet on the first hole and, as he’s done too often lately, butchered the play. He left himself a six-footer. This time, however, he made the putt.
Big up-and-downs — the kinds of rescues he once-upon-a-time pulled off routinely — followed on the third and fourth holes.
"Those are key, to be able to keep the momentum in the round going," he said.
As he grew in confidence, perhaps not coincidentally, his ball striking improved.
His iron play, especially, was as sharp as it’s been since he started working with Sean Foley last August.
It was noticeable just how smooth his swings were compared with the muscular, jerky passes at the ball he’s been making.
"I think if he hits it in the fairway, he’s going to be hard to beat again," said Thomas Bjorn, who defeated Woods in the Match Play two weeks ago and played alongside him on Sunday.
"His approach shots today were really good, very good quality and much better than when I played against him in Arizona. What he’s got to do now is to fix the driver."
Woods acknowledged that the driver was the club that was causing him most concern.
"The driver is still not quite there," he said, "I’m not quite shaping the golf ball like I want to yet.
"But I’m hitting it flush again, which is good, so that’s just a matter of time before that comes around."
The entire day was a remarkable transformation given that the talk of the Doral resort on Saturday night was that Woods had become a lost cause and that Foley’s swing theories weren’t helping.
Woods’ estranged coach, Hank Haney, has used his Twitter account to question Foley’s credentials, while even Woods’ first coach, Butch Harmon, who’s been largely silent on the subject of his former star pupil, got into the act.
"I think if I am Tiger Woods, I am a little frustrated that I don’t see the consistency that I am looking for," he said of the Woods-Foley relationship.
I asked Foley if he was feeling the heat.
"People see what they want to see," he replied.
What was important to him, he said, was that Woods was hitting the ball well, even if it was away from the spotlight.
"In all the time I have watched Tiger over the years, I have never seen his warm-ups this great," Foley said.
"We have work to do but I believe in him."
Foley told a Canadian magazine last week what’s become obvious: that Woods hasn’t recovered psychologically from the tabloid scandal that cost him his marriage as well as his public image.
"You’re absolutely probably an invalid if you don’t think what he went through hasn’t affected his belief system," Foley was quoted as saying.
I asked Woods on Sunday if he’s ever wondered whether he made the right choice in hiring Foley.
"No, definitely not going the wrong way, that’s for sure," he said.
He said he felt for Foley given the criticism that’s coming his way.
"As far as feeling for him, yeah, he’s never dealt with this before," he said.
"You know, for some reason, I tend to get a little bit more scrutinized than most players do; analysed to the nth degree about what goes on within one round of golf."