WINDERMERE, Fla. – On a sun-drenched afternoon behind the gates at Isleworth, 24 of the world’s best played a meaningless made-for-TV exhibition in front of a couple thousand residents, sponsors and invitees. For Tiger Woods, golf’s great curiosity, it was yet another round under the microscope.
Typically, the Tavistock Cup – a two-day team competition among multimillionaires – isn’t the best indicator of future performance. But with Woods still winless in 2011, and his swing overhaul still under scrutiny, his appearance Monday took on an added significance. Over the weekend, Butch Harmon, Tiger’s former swing coach, said during the NBC telecast of the WGC Cadillac Championship: “I think the next two days at Isleworth, in that tournament they are having with the inter-club thing, where he can be relaxed, and play a course that he knows, if he doesn’t play well then, I think there are some real problems.”
It sure looked like something more was at stake. Crowds swelled during the afternoon. Caddie Steve Williams was in midseason form, hushing camera-clicking seniors. There was very little fan interaction, despite increased access. And when he wasn’t playing, Woods was rehearsing – one good swing, two good swings, three good swings, four. It was 18 holes of competition.
Woods hit 14 greens, and he hit eight of 14 fairways, and using the Nike Method 003 putter, he failed to make a putt of any considerable length. Is that a real problem? He made three birdies on his own ball, and his Team Albany pairing with buddy Arjun Atwal produced a better-ball score of 8-under 64 on Day 1. Is that a real problem?
Perhaps no one knows better than Thomas Bjorn, who has played in the same group as Tiger three times in the past month. (On Monday, Bjorn teamed with Adam Scott to face Woods/Atwal.) Since ousting Woods in the first round of the WGC Match Play on Feb. 23, Bjorn already can see a difference in Woods’ game. The final-round 66 Sunday at Doral was particularly noteworthy.
“That’s what he needs, rounds like that,” Bjorn said. “He needs to see things going his way a little bit, and he’s working hard. He’ll be back to his best soon enough.”
But how soon? Because it’s never soon enough. The Masters is less than a month away. Already this season Woods has failed to win at personal playgrounds like Torrey Pines and Doral, and next week he’s teeing it up at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, another event he’s dominated in the past. Ask Woods, and he’ll say he’s getting close.
“It’s getting better,” he said. “I hit a couple of squirrely ones (today), but it’s feeling a lot more consistent.”
The head-scratching miscues – like the two drives at Doral that traveled less than 200 yards – seem to be fixed, so that’s progress. He drove the green on the 349-yard 16th, with a 3-wood, so that’s promising. And he seemed in good spirits, so that, too, is encouraging.
Yes, he chunked a shot out of a fairway bunker, he hit a few poor pitches and he flared a few irons. But he also made three birdies, the most impressive on the par-4 eighth, where he bombed his drive down the right and wedged to a foot. After carrying the team for much of the front nine, Atwal quipped: “Glad Tiger showed up.”
Indeed, Woods was solid, not spectacular. He lacked the flair of Scott, the steadiness of Bjorn. He seemed to approach the round like it was a PGA Tour event, not a glorified hit-and-giggle in front of a few TV cameras. This was part of the process, no doubt.
“Tiger is getting there,” Bjorn said. “He’s working and he’ll get there. He’s an intelligent player and he knows what he’s doing. He just needs a bit of time.”
And that, of course, is why so many fans turned out for the Tavistock Cup – to see the project for themselves. Because Woods remains golf’s great curiosity. Because even on a day for fun and camaraderie, Woods was grinding, forever under the microscope.