Less than 11 months after undergoing surgery to fuse his back, Tiger Woods is playing the brand of golf that made him a 79-time winner on the PGA Tour.
It has many observers, including his former instructor Hank Haney, convinced that he is back and could win soon. No less than Phil Mickelson, winner of the WGC Mexico Championship last week, said Woods might shock the world at the Valspar Championship.
“He’s always one-upped me,” Mickelson said on the Dan Patrick Show Thursday. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he went out and won this weekend to one-up me again.”
Woods, 42, is making Mickelson sound like a soothsayer. Woods fired a 3-under 68 yesterday for a 36-hole total of 140 that shared the early clubhouse lead with Paul Casey, Brandt Snedeker and Ryan Palmer among the morning wave. (Canadian Corey Conners, who led after Thursday, had improved to 7 under midway through his second round.)
“I’m up there,” Woods said. “At least I’m there with a chance going into the weekend. Today was a good day.”
Those who thought Woods was finished, that he would be a mere shadow of his former self, are beginning to realise this latest comeback attempt may be different than the previous ones.
One day after shooting a 1-under 70 on a breezy afternoon, Woods teed off early on a brisk day in front of crowds stacked 10 deep around the 10th tee, his first hole of the day.
He made back-to-back birdies at Nos 12 and 13 thanks to pinpoint irons knocked to inside of 6 feet. When he poured in an 11-foot birdie putt at the second hole, his 11th of the day, he had a share of the lead. Three holes later, he got up and down from the right greenside bunker at the par 5 for birdie and had the lead for the first time in 930 days.
Woods didn’t paint a masterpiece, but he shaped shots both ways and controlled the trajectory of his ball, scraping the clouds and hitting three-quarter knock-down shots when the situation called for it. He said he’s had to modify his technique slightly, and after missing the cut at the Genesis Open, his latest tweaks have worked. He finished 12th at the Honda Classic, and whipped his fans into a frenzy with thoughts of what could be this weekend if he were to win for the first time since the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
“Golf is better with Tiger,” one onlooker said to his friend.
The only blemish on Woods’s card yesterday was a bogey at the last when he missed the green to the right and failed to convert a 6-foot par putt. Still, Woods creamed his fellow playing competitors, Henrik Stenson and Jordan Spieth, the last two British Open champions, by nine strokes. “His ball striking is better. He’s more in control,” Haney said on The Hank Haney Show on Sirius/XM Radio.
“That’s his game. He’s going to hit a couple wild ones. Guys that hit the ball 330 yards, they are going to hit some wild shots. That’s just part of the deal. But you’ve got to hit the big drive, the good drive, on the holes that you need it. He’s got to sharpen up on these par 5s a little bit, that’s always been his bread and butter. That is something that is going to come. I’ve got to be honest with you, though, I think Phil Mickelson might be right. This could be the week. If this isn’t the week, you know what, next week could be the week.”
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