Maginnes On Tap: Guess who’s back?
Photos: Sunday at the Honda Classic
From Tiger Woods to Rory McIlroy, our Tracy Wilcox documents the Honda Classic's final round.
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods stood on the sixth tee at PGA National’s Champion Course last Friday afternoon and hit a stuck-block into the mass of humanity that lined the right side of the par 4. With water left, it wasn’t surprising that a player would protect himself – especially on his 15th hole of the day, on a Friday, sitting one shot inside the cut line. But this isn’t an ordinary player; this is Tiger Woods. Or at least, it was. When Woods failed to get his ball up and down from over the green, he slipped to 1 over for the tournament. The massive Friday morning gallery was abuzz: Anyone know the cut line?
One hole later, at the long, par-3 seventh, Woods took a few extra practice swings from behind the ball. The effort was clear to the trained eye. He was trying to cover with his right shoulder at impact and send the club to the left after impact. The old-school instructors call this “Hitting the inside of the ball.” The effort sent a rocket off the face of a 5-iron to the middle of the green, a shot that “fell to the right” and split the flagstick 15 feet short of the hole.
“I figured something out on six. I’m just sorry that it took that long,” Woods said after the round.
Even though he missed the putt, something was different. He hit a laser 2-iron into the fairway on eight, leaving 132 yards to a hole location tucked left. The wind was in from the right, setting up a nice draw. Standing behind the green, TV analyst Johnny Miller watched as Woods' wedge started 40 yards right of the flag and whipped into the green, landing 8 feet behind the hole, eventually spinning to a stop 6 feet away. “He’s been playing too much with Bubba,” Johnny said with a grin over the cheers of Woods' vocal throng. Woods would make the putt, then repeat the process on the par-4 ninth to get to 1 under par through 36 holes.
Saturday was closer to a great round of golf, but when the day ended, Woods sat nine shots behind Rory McIlroy and conceded that he would “need some help from the leaders.” Sunday started much the same way the rest of his rounds had started. Woods hit it inside 15 feet on the first hole but couldn’t convert. On No. 2, he was forced to make a 5-footer for par, a putt that he had found a way to miss earlier in the week. But he knocked it in. A piped drive 348 yards down the center of the fairway on the par-5 third set up his first of two final-round eagles.
By now you’ve seen all the highlights and know how everything ended. What you probably didn’t see unless you were inside the ropes: Lots of missed chances on the greens. Hard to believe that a player can shoot 62 and have seven putts that could have gone in stay out. Four or five of those putts melted over the lip or caught the lip, but defied their master. Hard to believe, but this from a guy who made us believe what we never would have dreamed.
And then there was the shot at 18 that will be remembered as the moment when Woods announced his return. The approach to the par 5 featured most every element of a great Woods moment. For starters, it was nearly impossible. From 213 yards, there was no way to get the ball close to the right-side pin. To hit 5-iron and start it at the middle of the green with a brisk wind from the left tempted not only fate, but disaster, as water guards the green to the right. To pull it off, to make the putt to close with 62 and be just the second person since the tournament moved to PGA National to post double digits under par for four days was remarkable at its core.
Afterward, caddie Joe LaCava said that his player didn’t say anything in the fairway at 18, but that he thought Woods was trying to make 2. The one missing ingredient? He didn’t win, primarily because he failed to get a single ball up and down or birdie a par 5 on Thursday. He didn’t win because he could manage to shoot only 1 under on Saturday when McIlroy was pulling away. He didn’t win because the young player who now is recognized as the game’s best refused to succumb to Woods’ Sunday onslaught.
What is certain, and even refreshing, is that Woods' toy box is full again. There is work to do on the short game, and his putting is streaky at the moment. But the golf ball is in his control again. Woods is comfortably working the ball both ways with ease. He is hitting fairways and walking with purpose.
Woods is playing this week at Doral and has committed to play the Arnold Palmer Invitational in two weeks, leading into what likely will be the most anticipated Masters in recent memory. The search for greatness never is over for a golfer – not for Woods, not for McIlroy, and certainly not for those who chase them.
But it seems at the moment that the search has been narrowed for all the best players in the world. The final piece of the puzzle, a healthy Tiger Woods, is in place. What a spring this is shaping up to be, and the dust likely won’t settle until the Ryder Cup ends in autumn. It may seem too early to declare that Woods is back until he wins again. But he’s back – and so is the game of golf.