PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Tiger Woods’ trek back to golfing brilliance was always going to be in grimaced, baby steps, but the last few months have largely been a plateau. Our expectations froze.
In December, Woods bowed out of his Hero World Challenge with a case of plantar fasciitis. His trip to St. Andrews last July was memorable but the golf was forgettable. He skipped the U.S. Open, skipped his final round of the PGA Championship and only once broke par at Augusta National. But this year? This year might be different.
Woods played his way around Riviera Country Club in 67 strokes Saturday, by far his best round since his car accident two years ago. He even admitted it himself. And for the first time since his accident, Woods’ performance felt casual. It felt ho-hum. He was even asked if rounds like Saturday’s remind him of “the old days.”
“Feel-wise, yes,” he said. The press doesn’t understand golf quite like he does, but we do know good golf when we see it, and the question had to be asked. Three birdies and an eagle at Riviera is a great day.
Every Woods press conference from now until The End will be filled with answers about his body. On the good days, he’s succeeded despite his body. On the bad days, he’s losing to his body. The golf, he makes it sound, is just adjacent to that.
“I can hit golf balls, I can do all that stuff,” he said. “I can chip and putt back home and I can do all that stuff. But I haven’t walked and played a lot, so that’s the challenge.”
But part of this week has been realizing that Woods does indeed look stronger than last year. His gait is still hampered, but smoother. His most dramatic limping happens toward the end of each round. He says his core is stronger, so he can keep up with the distance of his peers’ without doing it all with his lower body. It’s definitely working.
“Christian [Bezuidenhuit] and I were talking about it,” playing partner Matthias Schwab said after the round. “He outdrove us on almost every hole, which was a little bit surprising.”
Just a little bit? This man is 47 years old and looks much older, but expectations seem to be changing on the PGA Tour. Last week numerous players were surprised to hear Woods would be teeing it up this week. Now, he’s beating a number of them.
Saturday’s 68 is just the 12th round Woods has played in competition since his car crash in 2021. Even if he’s 12 shots back of inevitable force Jon Rahm, Woods is really playing without pressure for the first time in his life.
This time last year no one knew when he’d compete again. Even last week, we expected him to just host the Genesis. But then he showed up and shot 69 Thursday. No one is demanding he play, but he’s doing it, and sneaky doing it well.
It’s easy to count to two, but Woods hasn’t put two rounds together in a tournament since the fateful accident. Last year’s opening 71 at Augusta National was followed by 74 and a pair of 78s. His 69 on Friday at Southern Hills came after a 74 and before a 79.
In just three rounds this week, Woods has already broken 70 twice. Rightfully so, it’s earned him questions about adding another event to his schedule before the Masters. We’re all struggling with patience, Woods included.
“The way I had been hitting the golf ball, the way I’ve been practicing at home, I can do this,” Woods said to CBS’s Amanda Renner after play. “It’s just a matter of getting it around. How am I going to do that part?”
Yeah, we’re all wondering that. Woods was sitting during that interview, and comfortably, but his limp gets worse the more he has to do. “From point A to point B,” he calls it. He had to stand for his interview with Kira Dixon, and then stand some more for 10 questions with reporters. Then he had to descend from the podium, step over electrical cords and walk the slight incline to the locker room. A security guard prompted him for an autograph, and Woods accepted the duty, but only after plopping down on a golf cart.
There’s a lot of deference and preference for Woods at this tournament. He mostly can float around with handlers taking care of things for him. He certainly chose the first tee time in Wednesday’s pro-am on his own. And the group he played with Thursday and Friday (alongside buddies Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy) was as comfy as they get. There will be another chair for his broadcast appearances Sunday afternoon and probably a cart to the 18th-green ceremony when the tournament is over. But mostly we care about the golf shots, right? In terms of golf shots, he’s still doing it. He’s still doing it.