Stricker’s tip sparks Tiger’s game

Golf is the most unique of professional sports.

One so gentlemanly and old-fashioned that a player would willingly help a competitor even though doing so may cost him a chance of winning.

And so it was in the first round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship, when Tiger Woods turned a putting lesson from Steve Stricker late on Wednesday night into nine Thursday birdies.

Only twice in his storied career has Woods made 10 birdies in a professional round and, in truth, he had several good chances to at least equal that at the not-so-scary Blue Monster at Doral.

When the day was done, Woods, who needed only 26 putts to shoot a six-under par 66, was tied for the lead. Stricker was just a stroke back.

The irony wasn’t lost on Stricker.

But the good-natured 46-year-old sees his help as merely a reflection of the culture of golf.

“It’s just the nature of our game,” he said. “Although we are competitors, we are friends. And you like to see your friend do well.”

His friend certainly did well, even if the same couldn’t be said for Woods’ playing partner, slumping Rory McIlroy. The world No. 1 fought his swing again and shot 73 — better than only 10 other players — in benign conditions.

“It was a bit of a struggle, to be honest,” conceded McIlroy of his return to golf after last week’s ill-advised second-round withdrawal at the Honda Classic. “But this is a work in progress and I’m working at it and I’m staying patient.”

Woods could sympathize, having gone through a dark age that lasted essentially two years.

“I don’t think he’s quite drawing the ball like he used to (and he’s) maybe just a little bit defensive out there,” Woods said of McIlroy. “But we have all gone through stretches like this. You’re going to have ups-and-downs and just have to battle through it.”

Certainly Woods seems like he’s battled through his downs and is on the way back up.

On Thursday, Woods looked more like the player who dominated the field at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in early January and not the man who was upset in the first round of the Match Play Championship, then finished uninspiringly in the middle-of-the-pack last week at the Honda Classic.

Although Woods wasn’t always straight and long off the tee Thursday, he played very nicely out of the rough, recalling that in his day he was a master at winning tournaments from the spinach.

Most important, his accurate irons left the ball pin high, setting up many birdie chances. And his putter — once the best club in his bag — took advantage, atoning for three admittedly sloppy bogeys.

Afterward, Woods gave credit to Stricker, whom he calls “one of the best putters that’s ever lived.”

“Whatever he says, I’m going to do,” he said.

Woods, the world No. 2, was searching for his stroke on the putting green when his old friend offered advice, albeit reluctantly because he knows tips can lead golfers — even at this level — to very bad places.

“He was talking a little yesterday that a couple of putts were bothering him and you know, I always hate to interject anything with him,” Stricker said. “But he was open to it.

“You don’t want to screw a guy up … but when I left him last night, he was really excited and it looked like he was rolling it really good then. But you never know, you could hurt the guy, giving him a tip or two, or you could help him out. I was glad to see him when he shot 6 under.”

I’m not sure the rest of the field was as glad.

So what was it that Stricker saw?

“I’ve watched him so much over the years that I saw right away,” he said.

Essentially, Woods was standing too open when he lined up putts.

“His big swing gets into his setup of his putting stroke and he’s been chipping a lot, so he gets way to the left and his grip was on a little strong and he was kind of dropping it back and under and then trying to save it and turn it over,” Stricker said. “And he actually had his hands behind the ball. Looked like he had a lot of loft on there when I was looking at it.

“So just tried to get him set up in a better position where he could feel like he could accelerate down through the line a little bit. And he really felt good.”

Woods said he started feeling “just like I did at Torrey.”

And that’s an ominous sign.