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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – It wasn’t the 26 putts.
It wasn’t the 10-for-13 performance off the tee.
It really wasn’t even the score: a second-round, 6-under 66 that was 10 shots better than his sloppy start to the week at the Zozo Championship.
If Tiger Woods is being honest at this juncture in his unparalleled career, success isn’t measured on the scorecard so much as it is with the unquantifiable minutia.
This week, for example, was a chance for Woods to defend a PGA Tour title for the first time since 2014 on a course that he has owned. In a decade of Hero World Challenges played at Sherwood Country Club, Woods never finished outside the top 2, and after matching Sam Snead’s mark of 82 Tour titles at least year’s Zozo Championship, this would, on paper, check all the boxes for potential success.
But this is a different Tiger.
He wants to win and, yes, second still sucks. But in the grand scheme of life imitating art, he’ll take progress.
Like the rest of us, 2020 hasn’t been kind to Woods. He has just a single top-10 finish this year, and that came way back in January at Torrey Pines. Woods has played just five events since the pandemic restart in June. So, while Thursday’s 4-over card wasn’t where he’d hoped to be, understand that the number was only a part of the equation.
That progress came on Friday. He birdied three consecutive holes starting at No. 4, bounced back with another at No. 11 and played his last three holes in 2 under. Although he finished the day right where he started, a dozen shots off the lead, he had something to build on.
“It just snowballed into a high number [on Thursday]. I was never really able to get any kind of momentum going because I played the par 5s so poorly. Today was different,” Woods said. “Got off to a much better start and kept rolling.”
That’s the minutia. After playing Sherwood’s five par-5s in 3 over on Thursday, Woods was a more respectable 4 under on Day 2. It’s always more complicated than it appears, but for Tiger, the two-day turnaround can largely be traced to his play off the tee.
He was more accurate. He was more aggressive. He was more capable of working the ball in both directions.
The latter is worth noting, especially with the Masters looming three weeks away. Unless Woods makes a dramatic schedule change and adds the Houston Open to his dance card – something he’s flirting with at least publicly – this will be his final tune-up before the year’s final major. It was an 11th-hour epiphany that propelled him to victory at last year’s Masters and allowed him to start moving the ball from right to left more consistently.
“I feel like I’m able to draw the ball a little bit better. And I need to get a little bit more sharp with it, start setting up a little bit higher than I am right now,” Woods said. “There are a couple holes that I do like setting it up and hitting high draws and I’ve done that. At Augusta I’m going to have to do that a lot more often than I am here.”
It would be an unspoken party foul for Woods, or any other player, to outright call another Tour event a tune-up for the Masters, but in this case, it is. A dozen strokes back on a course built for speed and birdies, there’s little chance of Woods collecting No. 83 this week.
But with the Grand Slam jewel awaiting, he can ready his game. He can practice that high draw and envision how it would play on, say, the 10th hole at Augusta National.
“No. 6 [at Sherwood] is a lot like No. 10, setting up, trying to hit that high tomahawk draw down there, I was able to do it yesterday and today,” he said. “So yes, there are a couple shots that yeah, I do look at that are similar to what I’m going to face at Augusta. I’ve got a few weeks out, so yes, imaging some of those shots already, and I have been for quite a while, ever since the U.S. Open.”
Forgive Woods for not being overly excited after his bounce-back, 6-under round. It’s the high draw off the sixth tee and a back that looked impressively lithe on Friday that he cares about at this juncture.
“I am moving a lot better. Having four weeks off was good, training sessions have been good, so everything’s kind of turned around,” he said.
Tiger was pleased with his game and his score on Day 2, but it was his progress that made him smile.