John Cook has taken his shots for being Tiger Woods’ biggest cheerleader.
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Who’s laughing now?
“A lot of people have jumped off his bandwagon, but there was no doubt in my mind that he was just going to get better and better and better and once he got some tournament rounds under his belt and saw progress, he was going to get confident,” Cook said before his second round at the Australian Open.
“And a confident Tiger Woods is tough.
“And a healthy and confident Tiger is trouble for a lot of people.”
A healthy and confident Woods turned in an impressive 5-under-par 67 on Friday to go with his opening 68, taking the midway lead at The Lakes at 9 under, one shot ahead of Australian Peter O’Malley.
The deposed world No. 1 hasn’t held the lead at a full-field tournament in two years, which was at the last tournament he won, the 2009 Australian Masters.
But securing pole position going into the weekend isn’t all that made him happy.
“It feels good, but it feels good that I’m there playing properly,” Woods said.
“It’s not like I’m slicing it all over the place. I’m hitting the ball well.”
Woods always has derived confidence from his ball striking, and, at least for two days in Sydney, it’s been as good as it was before his life was ravaged by a sex scandal.
The last time he’d played this well was at Augusta, he said, where he finished in a tie for fourth at the Masters. But even then, his swing was “kind of patchwork.”
Now, Woods said he much better understands the nuance and intricacies of Sean Foley’s swing ideas.
And it shows.
For more than a year, he’s looked like he’s been thinking about the mechanics of what he’s doing while over the ball.
Now, the swing’s more natural, less forced.
“Way less thought and more reaction to the target,” Woods said.
He had seven birdies in his round and, in truth, his score could’ve been much better.
“Even though I shot 5 under today, it felt like it could’ve easily been 8, 9 deep,” he said, sounding very much like the Tiger of old.
As he did on Thursday, Woods didn’t take full advantage of the par-5s, failing to birdie two of the more straightforward par-5s at The Lakes.
But, more important, he didn’t let setbacks bother him. Even when he made his first bogey of the tournament on his 30th hole, he bounced right back with a birdie at the next.
“I’m being patient,” he said. “I’m playing like I’ve been at home. It just hasn’t come out into a tournament setting yet, and that’s progression.
“I’ve been through swing changes before, and that’s how it happens.
“It takes a little bit of time, but once it starts coming, the confidence level starts building.”
Another player in the field affording himself a little joy over Woods’ resurgence was Fred Couples, the US Presidents Cup captain who took a lot of flak for using one of his two picks on Woods for next week’s matches.
“I can only go by what he tells me, and when he says he’s going to be ready by November, and we talk about it, well, I fully believe him,” he said.
“So, no, I’m not surprised.”
I asked Woods whether winning again might give him some satisfaction in settling some scores, given the number of people who have written him off.
He didn’t bite. At least for now.
But Jason Day, the young Australian who played alongside him, understood the significance of the past two days.
“Tiger’s known for shoving stuff down people’s throats,” he said.
“And he’s certainly doing that now.”
Day, who’s only two shots behind Woods, was in awe of what he’d seen from his boyhood idol.
“He’s got more shots than me in the bag right now, definitely,” he said.
“He hit some shots where I’m just sitting there going, ‘Wow.’ I feel like I can play a lot of different shots, but some shots that guy hits are just amazing.
“He hits shots that the top 1 percent of the PGA Tour players can’t hit.”
Day was particularly impressed with the 3-wood — a low bullet with a hint of fade — Woods hit into the par-5 eighth.
He had 250 yards to the front of the green, hitting into a strong wind.
“I hit that good,” said Woods, grinning.
Day said if Woods could control his ball like he has in Sydney, there’s little doubt he’ll be back to the top of the world rankings.
“I’m not too sure if the old Tiger is going to come back, but I know that he’s going to go on and win tournaments. And who knows, he may well break (Nicklaus’) record (of 18 majors),” he said.
But Woods knows two good days does not a tournament make.
“It’ll be a tough couple of days with the winds blowing,” he said.
What will help him through is his experience at winning.
“I’ve been there a few times, and I understand how to do it. All the things that can happen, I’ve experienced a lot of it,” he said.
“It comes back.
“When Jack won at ’86 in the Masters, it seemed like he was in contention the week prior.
“You know what it feels like. You know what to do.”