About-face: Nightmare 85 a distant memory as Tiger’s comeback tour returns to the Memorial

May 30, 2018

DUBLIN, Ohio — Big news came out of Sandusky, Ohio, earlier this week when a car crashed into a utility pole near Cedar Point, the world’s largest amusement park. The resulting power outage shut down the park completely, stranding rollercoaster riders in mid-air for more than an hour. Two hours south, the PGA Tour rolled into town, and the Tiger Woods Comeback Tour along with it. Neither showed any signs of halting.

Woods arrived in central Ohio fashionably late, landing Tuesday evening fresh off a scouting trip to U.S. Open host site Shinnecock Hills. The late arrival meant that Woods’s only look at Muirfield Village, where he has won five times, came early Wednesday morning alonside Peyton Manning in a pro-am.

The return to Ohio serves as reminder of Woods’s career low (high?) point; in 2015, his last visit here, he shot a career-worst 85 on Saturday. “I didn’t want anyone to watch me play,” he says now of the nightmarish morning. But the Woods who teed it up Wednesday has done plenty to convince the public — and, more importantly, himself — that he’s in a far different spot now. The results (two top fives, plus a surge into contention at the Players Championship) reflect that shift. So do the questions. Rather than querying his physical health or mental hangups, a self-assured Woods now fields volleys like this one: What happens if he’s a player and captain on this year’s Ryder Cup team?

“I know that the players and the captain wear different outfits as part of the Ryder Cup,” he said. “I’d really like to screw that up for them.” He was joking, except he wasn’t. A healthy, competitive Woods is unlikely to be left off any sort of team that has the option of selecting him.

He showed plenty of enouraging signs on the course this humid morning. Woods doesn’t need a ton of drivers at Muirfield Village; he can think and feel his way around the course. In the pro-am he hit mostly fairways using mostly non-drivers and repeatedly left himself with short looks for birdie. He missed most of them, still calibrating the speed of Muirfield Village’s sloping greens, but this did not seem to particularly faze him.

Comfortable with his putting stroke, Woods focused much of his time and effort on the course’s snarling rough, which sits thick and unpredictable. He spent a lot of time chipping from the gnarl, testing a variety of options that included bunker-style explosion shots, steep flops and a closed-face, low-spin toe ball that rolled out further. Some worked to satisfaction; others didn’t. The rough here is undeniably rough.

The same rough provided his highlight of the day: after his tee shot on the par-3 8th hung out left of the green, Woods was faced with a near-impossible chip, shortsided and playing from a downslope to a downslope. The assembled crowd took a collective pause as Woods stepped up to his ball, surveying the options with a little shake of his head. One voice broke the silence.

“Hi Tiger!” one young girl yelled. Woods looked up and smiled. “Hello,” he called back, drawing a laugh. Then he turned back to his ball and hit a high, soft wedge from the thick lie that landed and released on a perfect line and disappeared into the cup for an improbable 2. Woods happily threw her the ball.

A second rough-related incident of note: after his 3-wood found the right rough at the par-5 11th, Woods arrived to find his ball buried at the bottom. Caddie Joe LaCava was pacing in the fairway, finding Woods a distance. “Don’t bother,” Woods told him. The two conferred for a moment, with Woods insisting that he could advance the ball past the creek some 30 yards in front of him. The ball tumbled out of the rough and onto the fairway, bouncing twice on the near side of the creek before hopping just over to safety on the far side. “What’d I tell you! Over the creek,” Woods said with particular enthusiasm.

A third highlight came when Woods’s two-iron approach found the back right fringe on 15; he followed by dropping in the 35-foot curler for eagle. He spent the last several holes in conversation with his playing partners, Manning included, alternating compliments with good-natured ribbing. With Woods looking on from the Trackman computer measuring his driving distance on 17, Manning took an extra lash at the ball. Woods shrugged. “Two-iron numbers,” he told the former superstar quarterback, deadpan.

The typical frenzy followed Woods, particularly alongside Manning, but it lacked the breath-holding desperation that followed his every move earlier in the year. The team of Manning-Woods-Johnson-Doyle posted 11 under, which was tied with Rory McIlroy for low pro-am round when they finished. That meant little, as this was the pre-amble to a warm-up to the U.S. Open. The majors demand Woods’s attention above all; his late arrival in Ohio served as a reminder that they’re fleeting, just four per year, and that they mark the passage of time far more so than even a high-profile Tour event like the Memorial.

“The last couple years have definitely felt more like 10, 20 years,” Woods said. “But the last 10 years have gone by quickly.” Follow that? Probably not. But you know what it ultimately means, which is that Woods has missed winning golf tournaments and is eager to get there again. He’d like that to start this week.

“Hopefully I can just shoot the low round when I need it,” he said.