By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tiger Woods isn’t overly revealing in his post-round press conferences, but his answer to one question in particular on Friday was as well-timed as it was telling.
Asked if his game now is better suited for TPC Sawgrass than in all the years since his last victory here, he said, “You just have to come here playing well.” Then came the punch line: “I just thought what I've done so far this year has been pretty good and better than most.”
It’s been a dozen years since his one and only victory in THE PLAYERS Championship, but anyone who thinks Woods hasn’t been playing the best golf on the planet this year must’ve been busy watching Animal Planet.
The first 36 holes here is only latest example of just how far he’s come.
Never before had Woods broken 70 in the opening round of THE PLAYERS. Check, after a 67 Thursday.
Never before had he been close to 10 under through two rounds. Check, after another 67 Friday.
Only two years here has he posted consecutive rounds in the 60s. Make that three now.
I’m not a fan of the woulda-could-shoulda game, but what would the conversation be right now had Woods’ ball not ricocheted off the flagstick on the 15th hole at Augusta National in the second round of the Masters?
The misfortune was worth at least three strokes, if not more. He could have very well been in the lead going into the final round in the year’s first major, and we know what he does from the poll position.
But reality hasn’t been too bad to Woods, either. He has three wins this season and has finished in the top five in four of his five stroke-play starts on the PGA TOUR.
“I came in here with some confidence,” Woods admitted.
He also came in with all parts of his game clicking.
For two years, he had undergone a massive swing overhaul -- one that was stunted by injury or limited to a pitch count. In the interim, he shunned his short game and the results suffered because of it.
At one point Woods went 748 days without a victory and in the process everyone except those in his inner circle wondered whether or not he would ever be the same.
Whether he is or will be isn’t so much irrelevant as it is unimportant now because the fact is Woods has six wins in his last 22 starts on TOUR (a percentage that's in the neighborhood of when he was in his prime).
Once Woods was healthy he was able to work on his short game and wedge play. The dividends have been handsome.
Woods is first in scoring average, first in strokes gained-putting, first in FedExCup points and first in the Official World Golf Ranking, a position he briefly lost to Rory McIlroy, who many thought (self included) had swiped the torch, never to relinquish it anytime soon.
Not so fast. McIlroy might be the game’s future, but Woods is proving he’s still its present.
Friday, Woods was mostly fantastic at a place where he has seen his share of struggles and that should tell you all you need to know about his state of play.
For much of the morning, this one had the feel of something special -- particularly when Woods, after a one-handed and unspectacular 285-yard drive lasered a 5-wood to 20 feet on the par-5 second hole (his 11th) and made the putt for a very spectacular eagle.
Bookended around the highlight-reel moment were five birdies, only two bogeys, all of which led to him being within a stroke of the lead.
For the stat geeks, Woods also hit 15 fairways. But at TPC Sawgrass that’s more relevant than at a lot of other places.
And remember, a couple of Woods’ recent woes at this golf course were cut short by injury.
This week, though, Woods has been the one punching back at Pete Dye’s masterpiece.
He was also quick to point out he has had success here. “Actually, I've won here twice, technically,” he said, reminding everyone in the room that he once captured a U.S. Amateur here, too.
“Even though over the years I haven't played my best here, I've always felt that courses, even though it's been a while I've won on them, I've still won on them,” Woods continued. “I know how to get around this golf course.”
He also knows his swing.
“I'm pleased with every facet of (my game),” Woods said. “I feel like I'm driving it well, hitting it well with my irons, my distance control is good, short game is really solid, and I'm making my share of putts.”
And with every one erasing whatever doubt might still exist.
Better than most? Maybe better than all when everything is said and done this week.