Tiger Woods 'trending in the right direction' ahead of Players Championship

Tiger Woods 'trending in the right direction' ahead of Players Championship

PGA Tour

Tiger Woods 'trending in the right direction' ahead of Players Championship

CHARLOTTE – Tiger Woods had just carded a 3-under 68 in Round 3 of the Wells Fargo Championship, and he paused because he had to think about the question for a second.

How long has it been since he’s hit the ball this well for three consecutive rounds?

“Three rounds in a row? Geez … Probably Valspar.”

The fact Woods finished T-2 at the Valspar Championship two months ago and had to make a 15-foot birdie putt Friday to sneak under the projected cut line at the time shows just how poorly he putted for the first two rounds at Quail Hollow.

The fact that he finally sank a few putts and shot up the leaderboard Saturday shows just how close he’s been this week to putting everything together ahead of the Players Championship next week at TPC Sawgrass.

Woods further explains that new shafts on his driver and 3-wood have finally allowed for the proper spin rate, and he’s no longer seeing the highs and lows in that regard that plagued him earlier in the season.

In other words, he’s hitting it long and straight off the tee and giving himself a lot more birdie chances from the fairway. Saturday he finally converted on those birdie chances and made a bunch of them, including three in a row during a defining back-nine stretch at holes No. 13-15.

Woods is 1 under for the week and was six shots off the lead Saturday afternoon, but this is exactly the kind of week he needed to bounce back after a Masters letdown.

He’s inside the top 10 in the field in both strokes gained: off-the-tee and strokes gained: approach-the-green. His ballstriking has been superior to just about every other player in the field.

Like the Golden State Warriors on an off shooting night, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with his game right now. Sometimes the putts and the 3-pointers just don’t fall on a given night over the course of a long season.

Woods knows this. He would have loved to win this week against a top field on a course he hasn’t played since 2012, but this is just the first step after a long post-Masters layoff.

“I changed my (putting) stroke a little bit and went a little more old school, how I used to putt, a little more handsy … and it worked,” Woods said. “I was so close to shooting about 7, 8 under today. I still didn’t have enough pace on a couple that I left on the lip. I’m close. I’m hitting the ball well enough to contend, to win this golf tournament, but I just haven’t made any putts.”

Woods missed a 16-footer for birdie on 16 that would have made it four birdies in a row, and he three-putted on No. 18 to rob himself of a score more befitting the round.

This is where it’s probably appropriate to take a step back and remember that while this has all been normalized in recent months – Woods middling around the top 25 of a leaderboard – it is decidedly not normal relative to expectations.

Back in December we applauded Woods for finishing 72 injury-free holes at the Hero World Challenge, but a T-9 result was deemed unimportant against a small field on a forgiving course.

Now he’s in position to knock off a fifth top-25 finish in seven PGA Tour starts on some of the toughest courses around. That includes a T-5 at Bay Hill and a runner-up at the Valspar Championship, by the way, which is why Woods is now the biggest story in golf again and deservedly so.

Maybe he would get just as much attention and draw galleries just as large based on reputation alone, but this isn’t some clickbait narrative rooted in nostalgia. This is happening in real time, and it’s the most fascinating comeback story in sports given the context.

So the putts haven’t dropped and Woods probably won’t win this week. He still has an outside chance, which is remarkable given how poorly he’s played on the greens.

“If I can just post a good number tomorrow, (we’ll) see what happens,” Woods said. “That may be out of reach tomorrow, but who knows. Maybe I can play a low one and see what happens. I feel like I’m hitting the ball well enough and just trending in the right direction for the next week.”

That’s what this week is really all about, getting comfortable after a rest period to give things a go at the Players Championship, where he won in 2013 and is hoping to prove his game still stacks up against the very best in the world.

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