Tiger Woods encouraged but not sharp in return

Tiger Woods during the second round of the Quicken Loans National.

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BETHESDA, Md. – Tiger Woods said he was encouraged. But he’s not ready.

Not ready to contend any day soon, anyway.

He may find something between now and the Open Championship July 17-20 at Hoylake, where he won in 2006. But that might be difficult to accomplish without more competitive rounds to chip off the rust that was apparent at the Quicken Loans National.

As it stands, he isn’t expected to compete between now and then. But because he needs more fine-tuning, it would behoove him to add the Scottish Open the week before going to Royal Liverpool. Yes, he’s a creature of habit who hardly ever plays the week before a major championship, but these are extenuating circumstances.

He shot 74-75 for a 7-over 149 at Congressional and missed the cut by four strokes mainly because of a shaky short game. He got up and down only three of 16 times after missing greens in regulation. He converted only two of seven putts in the range of 4-8 feet.

In other words, he would have made the cut easily had he gotten up and down anywhere near his norm.

“The short game was off,” he understated.

It was just the 10th missed cut in 299 professional starts on the PGA Tour. That’s a remarkable statistic, testament to his high level of play over almost 18 years since his amateur days.

It happened because, understandably, he wasn’t sharp in his first competition since he underwent a microdiscectomy March 31. Woods figured to be good with chipping and putting, for he had practiced that often while recovering from surgery. But that was hardly the case. The surprise is that his long game, despite some spotty driving Friday, trumped his partial stuff.

The numbers aren’t pretty. The winner of 79 Tour titles beat only 11 players in the 120-man field. His 7-over-par total was just two shots shy of his worst opening 36 holes in relation to par in a Tour event with a cut (2010 Wells Fargo Championship). His uncharacteristic four consecutive bogeys, on Nos. 11-14, in effect sent him packing for the weekend, oddly after he finally got momentum in making birdies at Nos. 9-10.

Woods, though, has long been good at avoiding self-sabotage when stumbling. Hence, he talked about taking away a “lot of positives.” The main one is that he had no problems with his surgically repaired back, even when making hard swings with his driver, something that had concerned him.

“The back,” he said, “is in the past.”

Woods was able to go into smash mode despite coming back, he said, four weeks earlier than originally expected. He mentioned the fact there were no physical setbacks. He mentioned swing speed. He mentioned recovering overnight and feeling fine Friday, something he was leery about. He mentioned his ability to shape shots both ways.

“I hate to say it, but I’m really encouraged by what happened this week,” Woods said.

Woods hardly sounded like someone worried about such substandard play eroding his confidence. It's sensible to protect confidence at all costs, for many players have lost theirs by coming back too soon.

But he was more concerned with getting back into the competitive swing of things, with shaking off issues that come with inactivity. The many errors he made, he reckoned, are fixable before the Open Championship.

“I got my feel for playing tournament golf,” said Woods, whose backswing looked short at times Friday. “I made a ton of little, simple mistakes, misjudging things and missing the ball on the wrong sides and just didn’t get up and down on little simple shots.”

For the second day in a row, Woods had a sloppy start. In the first round, he made five bogeys on his first nine holes, the back, and seven on the opening 12. Friday, he went 3 over par on his first eight, and again short shots could be blamed.

Woods made a wonderful save from 12 feet after hooking an iron way left on the par-3 second, but his troubles began two holes later. He missed a 7-footer for birdie at the fourth and double-bogeyed No. 5 because of bunker problems – he plugged an approach in front-right sand, failed to get it out and blasted to 20 feet. Then he three-putted for par from 59 feet at No. 6, leaving the first one 10 feet short.

In a bad spot at 3 over for the day and plus-6 for the tournament, Woods finally got on track with birdies at Nos. 9 (26 feet) and 10 (11 feet).

But he gave two shots back with consecutive bogeys. He drove wild right near a hazard, punched down the fairway and took four shots to reach the 11th green. At 12, he drove well left, missed the green in left rough, hit a poor chip over the other side and quickly hit a chip that came up 7 feet short.

Just when it appeared he had given up to a degree, he saved bogey. But then he hit a fat chip on the par-3 13th, leaving it 15 feet short en route to his third bogey in a row.

On top of that, he had a bit of a two-way miss off the tee. Of the seven out of 14 fairways he missed, four were to the left and three to the right. And Woods, like most pros, despises when the ball goes left.

But his use of the wedge and putter was the eyebrow raiser, for he had been working on such so much. As for what went wrong, he said the answer was in the grass.

“I’ve been practicing on Bermudagrass,” he said. “But (we) come out here and play rye. It’s totally different, and it showed. I was off. I probably should have spent more time chipping over on the chipping green than I did, but that’s the way it goes.”

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