PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Whether Tiger Woods makes the cut at the Genesis Invitational or not, his play through two rounds at Riviera Country Club after a seven-month break is encouraging.
Tiger’s body is a very old 47. He’s endured countless surgeries on his knees and back and yet he can still outdrive Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, he can still hit shots that make actor Rob Lowe, who followed along from inside the ropes, go “that’s sick,” and he can still make you believe that he can climb the mountain again.
“He’s got enough speed, he’s hitting it far, he’s doing everything he needs to do,” McIlroy said, “It’s just a matter of making sure he can get around the golf course. That’s the most important thing. As far as the aspects you need to play golf, it was all there. When you haven’t played a competitive round in six-seventh months, whatever it is – you’re going to be a little rusty.”
We’ll never really know what Tiger has to do to get ready for these rounds but after he made his third consecutive birdie to finish up his round of 2-under 69 on Thursday, he smiled with glee as if it was all worth it. Thomas just shook his head in amazement. CBS’s lead analyst Trevor Immelman tweeted, “That’s the same reaction everyone who has played with him over the last 30 years has had.”
Friday’s 74 was a bit of a mixed bag. Tiger’s famed Scotty Cameron Newport putter malfunctioned on the front nine. He missed birdie putts from 9 feet at No. 10, 4 feet at No.11 and 5 feet at 16. They were all missed to the right. He canceled out bogeys at Nos. 12 and 13 with a near ace at 14 (10 inches) and a beautiful approach at 17 to inside 3 feet. But as PGA Tour Radio’s Will Haskett noted in a tweet, he’s never putted well on Riviera’s poa greens.
In the ShotLink era at Riviera, Tiger has played the tournament 6 times…
SG: Putting = -0.54
[Didn’t have a negative putting season in his career]
SG: Around the Green = -0.19
No doubt that Riv vexes him. With more time focused in his back yard, can he reverse that trend?
— Will Haskett (@willhaskett) February 14, 2023
The irons, always the strength of his game, were in mid-season form.
After Tiger missed another birdie effort from inside 10 feet at No. 1, he practiced his stroke for several minutes between the first green and second tee and did a drill where he dropped a ball from eye level. Perhaps that triggered something or perhaps it was just the law of averages kicking in, but he holed his next three putts from 10, 5 and 10 feet – unfortunately they were all to save par.
“I did not putt well today, I blocked a lot of putts early and this is probably the highest score I could have shot today,” Woods said. “Probably should have shot probably five or six better than this easily.”
That’s a pretty fair assessment. He could’ve been lurking, on the fringes of the trophy hunt going into the weekend had some putts dropped. Who knows what seeing Tiger’s name hovering around the first page of the leaderboard would have done to the psyche of the leaders, but it wasn’t to be.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 17, 2023
Tiger’s bogey-bogey finish was problematic and is a discouraging trend that Woods noted himself on Thursday. He’s had a tendency to run out of steam late in the round and the hitch in his step became more pronounced as the round went on. By the time he finished his media obligations, it was a full-on limp.
“Last year you saw it, I didn’t finish off the rounds,” he said.
“There’s going to be, as he put it, “ebbs and flows.” He was punished for a pulled drive at 8, having little choice but to explode out and made bogey. Another missed fairway at nine – he hit only five for the day – led to a mud ball and then a fried egg lie in the front-greenside bunker.
But regardless of whether he survives the cut or not – and his chances look good for the cutline to move in his favor – Tiger looked better than he did when we last saw him play “actual” golf rounds. He’s finding another way to make his swing work.
“Before I would use the ground and push off and could be explosive. I don’t have that ability anymore, so a lot of it’s just purely core strength but also being very careful because my back is fused,” Tiger said. “Yes, I can hit the ball harder, but it’s just, I’ve got to be very careful in how I go about that. There’s things technically that we have found that work, but if I try and step on it and use the ground, it just doesn’t happen anymore. But if I step on it and use my core too much, then my back’s not very good. I’ve got to be very careful in how I go about that.”
Even in his heyday, Tiger never has performed his best golf at Riviera. Different story when he rolls up to Augusta National in a little less than 50 days. So, this is a step in the right direction, and that direction is the Masters, where Tiger will have extra motivation for his first of four big tests.