McCabe: Woods at his vintage best Friday at Firestone
AKRON, Ohio –– Though his spot atop the leaderboard had faded with two bogeys in his final six holes, Keegan Bradley was 6 under halfway through the Bridgestone Invitational. Told that he trailed Tiger Woods, whose round had just started birdie-eagle, Bradley smiled at the prospects of a weekend battle with a boyhood idol.
“I just hope he doesn’t go too crazy,” Bradley said.
So much for wishful thinking because what moved in over Firestone Country Club Friday afternoon wasn’t so much a cool weather front but a proverbial blast from the past. It was Woods at his vintage best, a stern-faced, steel-eyed, laser-shooting, flawless-putting machine who appeared to be on a mission.
That mission? To let everyone play for second. Just like the old days.
Though Woods got plenty of mileage out of saying “there’s a long way to go,” it sure doesn’t feel like it. Nope, this Bridgestone Invitational early Friday evening felt like a two-day invitational had concluded, given that Woods made Bradley’s worst fears come true.
He went crazy.
OK, so perhaps “crazy” is embellishment, since nothing Woods did during his afternoon round in cool, soft conditions was nothing he hadn’t done before.
The 9-under 61? Terrific, but he did that back in the second round here in 2000, and he has shot it two other times in his PGA Tour career.
Pushing to 13-under 127 through 36 holes? Back in 2000 he was 125 at the halfway point at this tournament.
Pulling away to open up a seven-stroke cushion over Bradley and Chris Wood, both of whom shot 68? In 2000, Woods led by a whopping eight.
Heck, even when he ran off his fourth consecutive birdie at the par-4 13th to get to 9 under, Woods said he wasn’t consumed by shooting 59. Why? “I have shot it before,” he said, and, yes, he was referring to that day that is part of his folklore – even if it was outside out of the competitive arena to which he’s accustomed.
It was the spring of 1997, back when his legend was still in the formative stages, and Woods was at Isleworth with his friend and mentor, Mark O’Meara. He blitzed that long and tough course with a 59 and the epilogue to that isn’t that Woods took “a boatload” of money from his friend but that he went and won a historic Masters a few weeks later.
(As an aside, Woods revealed that the day after that 59 he was again on fire, again putting a beating on O’Meara when his friend got in his cart and left the course after 11 holes. “Didn’t say a word to me,” Woods said, laughing.)
Don’t insult Woods and brush aside that 59 by suggesting it wasn’t within the boundaries of a PGA Tour tournament. To shoot 59 at Isleworth “you had to be 13 deep (translation, 13 under),” Woods said, and then he casually added: “I was only 9 (under) today at that point.”
OK, so he was maintaining his legendary focus, not getting caught up in the moment. But let the record show that others were, because on a day when Woods beat the next-best score (John Merrick's 66) by five and the field average (71.192) by more than 10, he was The Show.
“Quite noisy out there and you know when it’s Tiger because it’s just a slightly louder and slightly different roar,” said Wood, who played two groups in front. “The score he put together out there was pretty amazing today.”
What was most remarkable about the round was the way it unfolded – with a combination of electricity, doggedness and magic. He hit nine of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens, numbers that wouldn’t have suggested a 61 was possible. But the number of putts certainly explained why it’s what he signed for.
Twenty-two, an absurdly-low total that broke down like this: five two-putt greens, 12 one-putts and one hole that went into the books as a zero-putt because Woods rolled it in from the fringe, 23 feet away. The fact that that Houdini act occurred at the 18th hole was certainly fitting, for it allowed for one final roar on a day when Woods owned them all.
“I mean, it felt quiet for a World Golf Championship,” said Henrik Stenson, who also played in the afternoon. “It felt like I was out for an early round on a Sunday morning.”
Stenson, who had started the day one off of Webb Simpson’s lead but ended it eight behind Woods, smiled, then shook his head. “Whether we’re playing for second or not, there’s much to play for.”
If they are playing for second, it’s because Woods turned back the clock to those days when he routinely buried fields. It wasn’t so much that he stuffed it to 3 feet and birdied the first, or rolled in a 20-footer for eagle at the second, or converted a 13-footer for birdie at the third. Stuff like that happens at Firestone’s opening holes.
No, it was how Woods saved par from a greenside bunker at the par-3 fifth, then showed his resolve at the par-4 sixth when he drove it wide left and into trees. He pitched out sideways, hit a 187-yard approach to 23 feet, then slam-dunked that. Riding that momentum to the 199-yard, par-3 seventh, Woods stuffed his tee shot to 3 feet and being 5 under through seven, sent the buzz into high gear.
At 9 under for the tournament, Woods was in front by three, but he is not wired to be content. “I just kept thinking, ‘You know, whatever lead I had, let’s just keep increasing (it),’ " and, oh, how he accomplished that mission.
Pounding fairways and greens, Woods hit it to 7 feet at No. 10, 5 feet at No. 11, 20 feet at No. 12 and then 14 feet at the 13th. He birdied all four and thus through 13 holes had one-putted 11 times.
Turn on the euphoria, right.
“I felt like I putted well today,” Woods said.
OK, so he’s not a quote machine. Some things never change. It’s more noteworthy that Woods proved some things can resurface when you least expect them – such as his incomparable ability to save par from improbable places and distance himself from the competition.
At the 14th, Woods blocked his drive and watched his ball twice hit a cart path before coming to rest in the trees. He drilled a low, boring cut shot around trees to the back of the green, and coolly two-putted from 35 feet to save par. Though he missed reasonable birdie chances at 15 (9 feet) and 17 (7 feet) and didn’t birdie the par-5 16th, what Woods did at the 18th more than made up for the disappointment fans might have had in the lost shot at 59.
Driving it into the trees right, Woods was still pinned in the trees after his second shot. From 75 yards he again hit an escape shot that came to rest on the fringe, from where his final stroke of the day elicited massive roars.
“Not too bad after two days,” Woods said, perhaps an entry for Understatement of the Year, because at 13 under, he’s miles ahead of Bradley and Wood and there are only four players within eight of his total.
Game, set, match? It sure feels that way, though some silver-liners will point out that in Woods’ three previous 61s, he won only once, the 2000 tournament here, when called the NEC Invitational. (He opened with 61 but finished T-7 at the 1999 Byron Nelson and he finished second after a 61 in Round 2 of the 2005 Buick Invitational).
And maybe those silver-liners will suggest Woods is not the same dominating golfer he was back in 2000 when he won this World Golf Championship by 11, the same year when he won the U.S. Open by 15, the Open Championship by eight and captured nine of 20 starts.
And you know what? Maybe he’s not.
But for one day, he most certainly was, which might be all he needs to put an eighth victory at Firestone in the books.