Tiger Woods bounces back at Sawgrass

Tiger Woods on Friday played like a man who wasn’t going to miss consecutive cuts for the first time in his professional career.

World No. 1 Rory McIlroy played like a man who’s still dazed and confused when it comes to architect Pete Dye’s idiosyncratic TPC Sawgrass layout.

McIlroy has yet to play the weekend in three trips to The Players and left scratching his head on Friday after a round of 76.

"It’s unbelievable," the 23-year-old Northern Irishman said.

"I shoot 14-under last week (losing in a playoff at Quail Hollow) and I feel like I hit it just the same this week, and I’m going home."

Such is the quirky nature of Sawgrass, a course that entices players with birdies, only to punish them with ugly numbers on their cards the moment they let their guard down.

Kevin Chappell, for instance, had an eagle, a birdie, a par, a bogey, a double bogey and a triple bogey, all on the front nine on Friday. In the first round, Jerry Kelly had a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 on his card.

These things aren’t supposed to happen to seasoned professionals.

"It’s an absolute challenge. All Pete’s golf courses are," Woods said.

"If you miss it, good luck."

Woods has never been a fan of TPC Sawgrass, even though he won a US Amatuer here, as well as the 2001 Players.

But that was all background noise Friday as he sought to find the game that’s deserted him since his breakthrough win at Bay Hill.

Coming off a disappointing Masters, where he recorded his worst-ever Augusta finish, and a missed cut at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, a lot was on the line for Woods, who opened with a lackluster 74.

He started promisingly — if not spectacularly — with three straight pars before flagging a wedge on the fourth. He made the birdie, but as has been his wont during this slump, gave it straight back with a bogey on the fifth after his tee shot landed in thick rough on a bank above a bunker.

But Woods turned around his fortunes with a laser-like 5-wood into the 243 yard par-3 eighth to eight feet. He converted the putt, then made three more birdies, looking like — dare it be said? — the Tiger of old. He made only one more birdie, but had several putts skirt the edges, including a 10-footer on the last.

"It was fun to see him get things going," said Rickie Fowler, who played alongside Woods.

Fowler, who backed up his first win last week with his first-ever made cut at the Players, plays practice rounds with Woods at the Medalist, their club in Jupiter, Fla.

"We’ve had a lot of fun at home," said Woods. "Some good money games.

"(Friday) was just like playing at home, but transplanted over here."

It was interesting that Woods felt that Fowler plays in tournaments just like he does at home because Fowler was surprised with how careful Woods played in Thursday’s first round of The Players.

He wasn’t so tight on Friday.

"It looked like he freed up a little bit and started playing some golf," Fowler said.

Woods said he began the day not thinking about the cut line, but instead with a target of 66 in his mind.

"I figured that would have been a good way to go into the weekend, being probably four or five back," he said.

As it is, he finished in a tie for 30th, six shots off the lead shared by Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Kevin Na.

"I’m still in with a good chance," Woods said.

He was clearly pleased with a 68 that ended his streak of nine straight rounds in the 70s dating back to his win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

"I probably could have gotten one or two more out of it," he said. "But I really played well today. I was just very consistent. Nothing spectacular, but just real solid golf."

McIlroy, meanwhile, couldn’t figure out how to play solid golf on this course.

"I just need to try and get the hang of this golf course somehow," he said.

"Off the tee I find pretty difficult around here. You have really got to position your ball in the fairway and to give yourself at least a chance to get to some of these pins. I just didn’t do that over the last couple of days."

He felt this would be his year at The Players because he thinks he "came back here a much better player."

"I felt like I would come here and think my way around the golf course and just try and play steady golf. I tried to do that, it just didn’t happen.

"So, it’s just one of those things. But, you know, I’m not getting down on myself about it. I played well last week, and I’ve got a big part of the season coming up and looking forward to that."