Weekend has different feel with Tiger atop leaderboard

March 23, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

ORLANDO, Fla. -- For the first time in a long time, there was an old familiar look and feel going around Bay Hill Lodge and Club on Friday. Call it a vibe, an unmistakable buzz. It was electric and it was on the wind, blowing through the magnolias, stirring the Spanish moss on the live oak trees.

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It was Tiger Woods, back atop a PGA TOUR leaderboard.

After a near-flawless round of 65, Woods is halfway back to being a winner again, 10 under and tied for the lead with overnight co-leader Charlie Wi. Jason Dufner, the other overnight leader, was tied at 9 under with Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, whose 63 was low round of the day.

Adding to the intrigue is the list of other familiar names on the board: Justin Rose at 6 under; Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh all at 5 under along with Webb Simpson. And then there is the unfamiliar name of Chris Stroud, 30, in his sixth season, with 14 career top-10 finishes.

Back in the days when Woods stood astride the golf world like a colossus, in the decade just past when he was winning one of every three times he played, there would be a sense of inevitability as this point. His 3-1 record when holding a 36-hole lead at Bay Hill would have been cited, his 33-8 overall record with the halfway lead -- a shocking 80.48 percent close rate -- would have been presented as prima facie evidence of his overwhelming role as favorite to win.

This weekend would have been forecast as a 36-hole coronation, a foregone conclusion, as Woods marched inexorably toward another PGA TOUR victory to go with the 71 he already has.

But the electricity at Bay Hill is as much a product of the uncertainty of the last 30 months as it is Woods' once indomitable presence. All of that was back before things changed, starting with the 2009 incident that cost Woods more than money and endorsements -- it presaged his winless streak and the injuries that have stalled his progress, and the unrelenting scrutiny and countless questions about his future that have dogged him for more than two years.

Woods, now 36, looked relaxed and almost bemused Friday after clawing his way back into a lead for the first time since the 2009 TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. It was as though all the bad memories were fading like mist in the hot sun that baked the Bay Hill fairways and sped up the greens -- greens that Woods hit 17 of 18 times with approach shots. He hasn't done that since 2008, when he was on his way to an eight-stroke victory at Torrey Pines in the warmup to his 2008 U.S. Open win there.

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His was the calming voice, the shrug that wondered what the big deal was.

"Well, it's not like it hasn't been that long, you know," Woods said, leaning back in his chair in front of the assembled media who were seated mostly on the edges of theirs. "I had the lead at Abu Dhabi this year. So it really has not been as long as people might think it has been."

He was actually chuckling as he spoke, as though the withdrawal with a strained Achilles just two weeks ago at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at TPC Blue Monster didn't matter.

"I'm comfortable up there and I feel like I'm playing well," he added. "You know, we've still got a long way to go. We still have 36 holes to go. Still need to continue doing what I'm doing out there, just kind of plodding my way along."

Throughout Woods' 30-month odyssey back into the golf world, there have been false indicators of his return to form. There was Dubai last year, where he blew up in the weekend winds and faded to 72-75 after getting into contention. And there was Abu Dhabi earlier this year, when he was tied for the lead with Robert Rock after three rounds. He shot 72 and finished third, Rock shot 70 to win and Rory McIlroy finished second.

There was even his own Chevron World Challenge, an unofficial, limited-field event he won last December. In truth, the win raised as many questions as it answered. Did it show he could hold up down the stretch in an official PGA TOUR event, or under the intense and unique pressures of a major championship?

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Not really. It showed he was making progress in his battle to own the swing he has learned with instructor Sean Foley. It showed he could execute the necessary shots to win a golf tournament with a very nice field, but not an official event with motivated young players and veteran players who were playing well.

But now he is in the hunt and preparing for the heat in the crucible of a regular PGA TOUR event. What Tiger Woods does in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, at the golf course where he has won six times -- seven if you want to count the first of his three United States Junior Amateurs -- will show whether or not it has all come back to Woods.

Like he used to do, he handled all four par-fives, birdieing each on Friday, 3 of 4 on Thursday.

The Woods who at times looked as though he was wandering lost through a forest is looking at a clearing straight ahead, with a shot to win at the halfway point. It was here in 2009 that he made a sliding 15-footer for birdie to win this tournament, and Palmer embraced him greenside and said, "I wouldn't have expected anything else."

The expectations now have been tempered. There are no more foregone conclusions. But it is clear that Woods has come a very long way to get where he is. If he can carry it through, he will shed a lot of doubts.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.