Progress? Yes, but Tiger has a higher standard

Tiger Woods follows his third shot on the par-4 13th hole during Day 4 of the Australian Open.

SYDNEY - Through a decade and a half, we’ve seen Tiger the Kid, Erratic Tiger, Tiger the Conqueror and Tiger the Rebuilder – the last identity spread out over three separate acts. Here across the globe in a city that knows something about suspenseful opera, Sunday in Sydney presented another installment in the program: Call it Tiger in Perpetual Progress – or better yet, Jigsaw Tiger.

Somewhere within that strapping 180-pound frame, hidden behind the dark sunglasses he sported this week, it would seem all the pieces are there. But summoning them at once and getting all to fit just so . . . well, that’s an aria we haven’t seen crooned in 24 months. In Sunday’s final round of the Emirates Australian Open, Woods in his four-hour finale climbed the leaderboard, sloppily stumbled backwards, and then tried to pull out some old, late Sunday magic. It was at once exciting, stunning, disappointing and mystifying, leaving one to wonder when, if ever, we are going to see a full return of golf’s Chosen One.

Woods on Sunday closed with 5-under 67 to finish third, his best showing since a runner-up finish at his own select party, the Chevron Challenge, nearly a year ago. Progress? You decide. On a short track, there were three solid rounds (two 67s and a 68) and a fourth in which he shot 75 and played like a guy trying to capture the second flight of his club championship. Woods would finish third, which sounds noble to we mere mortals, yet was beaten by two Aussies (Greg Chalmers and John Senden) not among the five who were bound for Melbourne and this week’s Presidents Cup. No offense to Sunday’s top combatants, but truth be told, Woods was beaten by a pair the likes of whom used to depart pro events on Sundays with Woods’ giant metal spike marks leaving tracks across their throats.

The New Era Tiger is making a spirited run at replacing Phil Mickelson as golf’s modern-day, high/low EKG chart. Sunday alone, there was the solid start to make some noise (3-under 32 on the front nine), two regretful bogeys on two easy, early back-nine holes (one on which he gambled and sprayed a drive into the edge of a hazard), and then eleventh-hour heroics: a valiant chip-in eagle at 14 that prompted Woods to raise his wedge to the gods and sparked thunderous applause and unyielding belief across the sprawling Lakes Golf Club. Yes, sir, Woods was back, and ready to pounce. It was as if he were the only player on the golf course.

But Woods never would fully close the gap on Chalmers, making routine pars at 15 and 16. He then watched a good eagle look at 17, where he flighted an elegant 5-iron approach to 12 feet behind the hole, ride a spine and drift helplessly right. Ball game. As tournaments go, even for a guy who for a solid spell won about half the time he teed it up, the result was something just north of Acceptable, a positive step for a man who hasn’t competed all that much and can use the confidence. (In the good old days, when would we ever have imagined Tiger Woods would need a jolt of confidence?)

In the midst of all the good, though, Woods was quick to acknowledge he left too much on the course. “It could have been a really low round today,” he said, pausing as if stricken by the reality. “. . . Could have been really good.”

That, too, is a step, even for a man who once loudly proclaimed to the world that “second sucks.” (Nothing wrong with that.) A week in Sydney that began with Caddie Smack (Woods putting out a fire fanned by his old looper Steve Williams, who’d hurled a personal, hurtful blow toward his ex-boss at a caddie dinner) also would deliver some telling signs that sunnier days might not be as far off as so many believe them to be.

“People talk about (how) he hasn’t won in two years, but he hasn’t played that much in two years,” said veteran caddie Joe LaCava, who has been on Woods’ bag for two starts. “You know what I mean? So he just needs to get more rounds under his belt, and see more putts go in, and see good shots. That’s all it’s going to take.”

The formula might be a little more complex and detailed than that. Every golfer has trouble linking 72 solid holes together, but the winning Tiger of old would not have stumbled to 75 when taking a lead into the third round. That’s really where he lost this one. Even without his best fastball, the old Tiger would find enough in an off-day to scramble and sign for 71, fix it on the range, and keep himself in the thick.

An early-week tome in The Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed that though Woods may not have the World Ranking points to show it (he entered the week ranked 58th), he “has the swing and swagger back.”

Not quite. Not yet. Unfortunately, his tank is nowhere near “full” on either gauge. But in Sydney, his low-flying Stinger was back in the arsenal, and LaCava watched Woods produce quality shots that he didn’t witness when Woods tied for 30th in San Jose in a Fall Series start last month. His majestic 4-iron beneath the wind from 201 yards into the uphill green at No. 12 on Sunday, setting up birdie? “A beautiful shot,” LaCava said.

Adds Aaron Baddeley, who played alongside Woods on Sunday and may face him in this week’s Presidents Cup: “Tiger’s always been very good at assessing his game, going away, working on it and becoming a better player. I think I’ve definitely seen that from San Jose to here. He’s gone away, he’s worked with Sean (Foley), he thought about stuff, and he’s come back better.”

Better. This is the new Woods litmus test. Growth and improvement; those two boxes he checked off in Sydney. Surprising as it seems to say, considering where Woods has been in two years, sometimes counted down and out, third place in Australia does qualify as “better.” He can take out the positives and move on. Two more starts remain on Woods’ abbreviated 2011 calendar, and feeling healthy again, a fresh new campaign awaits. That’s when Jigsaw Tiger, once and for all, will see if he can piece it all together. Can’t wait to see him try.

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification