Driver remains problem club for Tiger
Tiger Woods isn’t back, but he is clearing his throat.
A third place over the weekend at the Australian Open — his best finish in two years — suggested, to use the Woods parlance, progress.
The problem is that just as he’s warming up, the season is winding down, depriving Woods of what he needs most: to play.
“People are talking about how he hasn’t won in two years. Well, he hasn’t played that much in two years,” said his new caddie, Joe LaCava.
“I think he just needs to have more rounds under his belt — see putts go in and see good shots.”
Woods won’t have the chance to build momentum because he has only two events left on his 2011 calendar, this week’s Presidents Cup in Melbourne, Australia, and his Chevron Challenge, in Los Angeles, in early December.
His next full-field event isn’t likely to be until Torrey Pines in late January.
LaCava concedes another long layoff is hardly ideal.
“After his tournament, he’ll have another five- or six-week break, so it’s going to take time,” he said.
In other words, wait 'til next year.
And maybe that’s when we should judge Woods.
Assuming he‘s healthy and played three or four lead-in tournaments to sharpen his game, the Masters — his favorite event — will tell much about the comeback.
In the meantime, he has arrested his rankings free fall, from No. 1 all the way down to No. 58, and climbed back into the top 50 on the strength of his play in Sydney.
Four days at The Lakes told much about the evolution of Tiger 2.0.
There were many reasons to celebrate. The short game was sharper, and Woods seemed to have more control of his golf ball. He hit a number of impressive shots, such as the low, piercing “stinger” 4-iron that set up a final-round birdie on the exacting 12th at The Lakes.
“You can tell he had that stinger shot back, so I think that’s a telltale sign that he’s swinging nice again,” said Aaron Baddeley, who played alongside Woods on Sunday.
In his second tournament on Woods’ bag, LaCava — who was Freddie Couples’ longtime caddie — said the improvement on last month’s Frys.com Open in San Jose was significant.
“Much more solid ball-striking,” he said.
“I thought Fred (Couples) hit the ball solid, but this guy — he doesn’t put Fred to shame because that’s a knock on Fred; they’re both phenomenal — but I always thought Fred flushed it, but this guy flushes it more than any guy I’ve ever seen.”
But just as obvious were the flaws that kept Woods from ending his two-year winless drought.
On a 6,800-yard golf course, Woods got away with hitting irons or fairway woods off a lot of tees.
His driver, which he’ll need to contend at big events, remains unreliable.
Even though it behaved more than it misbehaved, when Woods most needed good drives on Sunday, he instead set himself up for costly bogeys.
For the second straight day, he made bogeys at the par-5 11th and the 315-yard, driveable par-4 13th, which surrendered 23 birdies Sunday.
On the 13th, he missed the green so far to the right that he plugged in the mud of an Aussie billabong.
Baddeley, hardly anyone’s idea of a straight hitter, drove the green.
The math isn’t difficult: He had two bogeys on easy holes, and he finished two shots behind champion Greg Chalmers.
The ultimate truth is that the tournament for Woods was lost on Saturday, when he inexplicably floundered after two solid rounds and turned in a 75. No one in the top 10 had a round as bad as 75.
''Two holes on the back nine today, and I putted awful (on Saturday), or I would have been right there,'' Woods acknowledged.
It was interesting to hear him second-guess his decision to hit driver on the 13th, especially after butchering the hole in the third round with a driver.
“That's a tough tee shot. I shouldn't have gone for it, now, in hindsight,” he said.
“I should have layed up with a 5-iron and hit a wedge in there. But I figured I needed to shoot somewhere around 31 on that back nine to at least give myself a chance. I thought 13 or 14 (under) was going to be the number, and I had to go get it.
“Unfortunately, I made a mistake there.”
Woods used to be the best course manager in the game, thinking his way around a course better than anyone else.
He never would beat himself.
Still, for all of that, Woods seemed happy to have been in contention at a tournament again.
He looked as though he enjoyed the rush.
“Yeah,” he said, “Absolutely.”