The Masters looms 42 days hence. The gentlemen of the PGA Tour played their first competitive round of the calendar year in the same time zone as Augusta on Thursday, so it must be about time to get serious.
Tiger Woods – remember him, he was more popular in the early 2000s than even Freedom Fries or Pokemon cards – was among them at the Honda Classic. It’s news when he emerges from his burrow. And he saw his shadow this day, which unlike the groundhog, means spring is just about here.
It’s uncertain how much more Woods will play between here and the Masters. Maybe once more, at Bay Hill. Maybe pick up another date. He keeps his schedule a mystery – so much depends upon the whims of his back. Thus, any round must undergo thorough forensics.
Having walked 18 holes with Woods on Thursday – please, I’m no hero, I’m just doing my job – I can offer two unassailable observations about the state of his game.
Encouragingly, it looks at this stage that he’ll be fit enough to do more than just join Nicklaus and Player for the ceremonial first tee shot at the dawn of this Masters.
At the same time, having Woods actually compete for a championship he has won four times, the last coming 13 long years ago, is still much too much to ask. At least until he finds a driver that doesn’t go looking for more trouble than a rebellious teen and brings to heel his erratic iron game. Seven weeks seems too little time to right these wrongs.
Shooting an even-par 70 on Thursday, in a palm-rattling wind and on greens that seemed more sandy filler than grass (they should count even three-foot putts here as sand saves), Woods was really quite pleased with himself. And he should have been. Hey, the guy has had his four back surgeries. He should be quite pleased tying his shoes.
This easily was the best ball-striking round he’s had of the seven now since his latest comeback, he said. “I was very pleased.” See, he was pleased.
“I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knock-down shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways – and occasionally downwind – straight up in the air. I was able to do all that today.”
One of his two playing partners, Brandt Snedeker, also was paired with Woods for a round at Torrey Pines last month. He saw progress.
“At Torrey, I saw a lot of good stuff, and there was a lot of good stuff today,” Snedeker said.
He added, “His iron play was significantly better today than it was at Torrey. That’s what I expected to see. He was still chipping and putting great. A few loose ones here and there, but I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”
Ever so briefly, Woods even led the tournament, standing at 2 under through his first four holes. It was barely 9 a.m. and half the field hadn’t even wiped the sleep from their eyes, but it was still enough to set this place temporarily on its ear.
Augusta National may well forgive the occasional wandering tee shot – Woods hit only one of five fairways on holes on which he pulled his driver Thursday, once hitting into a concession area, but saving par once they moved the ice cream, lemonade and pretzel carts. He has other options and was pounding his 2-iron and 3-wood like old times.
Augusta National will not tolerate sloppiness from fairway to green, and the added pressure that puts on trembling putters. Woods hit 10 of 18 greens Thursday, which made him a marksman by comparison to his last SoCal outing at Riviera, when he hit but 16 in two rounds before being asked to leave.
This day would have been so much prettier had Woods not butchered the par-5 No. 3 (his 12th hole of the day), playing among the easiest at PGA National. He visited two bunkers, escaping neither very cleanly, and missing a five-footer for bogey.
To Woods credit, he responded with a birdie on the following hole, hitting a deft, soaring 2-iron off the tee that he counted as his most pleasing swing. “That felt really good,” he said.
On Wednesday, pre-tournament, Woods addressed his many Masters absences, having missed the past two and three of the past four because of that troublesome back.
It’s clear that mentally, he is aching to return.
“I just miss the rush of competing for a green jacket,” he said. “I’ve been doing it since I was 19 years old (he’s 42 now). Having to sit out on the sidelines is not fun. Especially since I know how to play the golf course, and I wish I could play but I was physically debilitated.
“This year, it’s different.”
The bump Woods will give the Masters is not quite as seismic as at your average tour stop. Still he is positioned to be a major story for the season’s first major.
Here, an even par left Woods just four shots off the first-round Honda lead, so he should sleep contentedly in his Jupiter Island manse just 18 miles away. And tournament organizers long to see him make the weekend – ticket sales reportedly shot up 25 percent from a year ago when he committed.
“Golf ain’t been the same without you,” one fan shouted at Woods as he departed the green at No. 5 on Thursday.
But he was wrong, so wrong.
It’s, “Golf hasn’t been the same without you.”