On Friday, Tiger Woods knocked down a clutch birdie putt that put him just above the cut line at the 2015 Players Championship. On Saturday, Woods turned in a round that might make him wish that putt had lipped out.
The former world No. 1 carded a three-over 75 in his third round at the TPC Sawgrass, nosediving to the bottom of the standings amid struggles with every club in his bag, minus the driver. Woods shanked balls into the rough, woods and even once short of the ladies' tee on a particularly wayward swing.
The result was yet another setback in a series full of them for Woods, who looked to be rounding into form last month at Augusta. His driver and approach shots have been failing him all week, forcing him to scramble and gain ground in the rare cases his putter worked. It was a polar opposite of his first two rounds, after which Woods said he left shots on the table.
"I haven't gotten anything out of my rounds. That's the thing," Woods told reporters on Friday. "I should be a few under par each day, and I'm just not capitalizing on my opportunities. And I need to start doing that."
Though still a disappointing round, it almost felt at points like 75 was the best Woods was going to do. He opened the day with a double-bogey on the par-five second hole, which featured the aforementioned drive that didn't come close to even reaching the fairway. The 105-yard swing, caused by a drive that slammed against a tree and ricocheted into the pre-fairway rough, left him scrambling just to make the double.
Another bogey on No. 6 put him three over on the day, a mistake he atoned for instantly with a birdie on No. 7. Unfortunately, that's where the feel-good story ends. Woods, playing on the par-five ninth he'd birdied each of the last two days, needed three pitches just to get the ball on the green before two-putting for another double-bogey.
As Justin Ray of Golf Channel noted, the two double-bogeys made (unwanted) career history for Woods:
Things calmed down on the back nine for the most part, with Woods getting his second birdie of the day on No. 11 and avoiding major mistakes. After turning in a 40 on the front nine, he managed a 35 on the back thanks to a series of par saves. He parred eight of the nine holes.
Woods' putter, once an Achilles' heel, has increasingly become his savior amid his other struggles. He's averaging a solid 1.7 putts per green in regulation, a decent enough number all things considered. The problem has been getting on the greens in the first place. His irons and woods have consistently been off all week; it's rare his best non-putter club is his driver.
On one hand, Woods' avoidance of any major miscues on the back nine may be a promising sign for his final round on Sunday. Throughout the tournament and at the Masters, the 14-time major winner has shown flashes of his former self. Getting competitive rounds in—even if they're not especially good ones—is important for him to get back into a rhythm before the U.S. Open.
On the other, Woods is sitting at the bottom of the standings at yet another high-profile event. He's withdrawn and been cut in more events than he's been a top-10 player over the last two years. We can fairly blame his back injury for all of 2014 and his slow start to 2015, but we're getting to the point where it's easy to wonder if this version of Woods is permanent.
"I've spent a lot of time talking to Tiger over the last six months—more so than ever before—and I've been pulling for him to get back playing," Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III told James Corrigan of the Telegraph last month. "I want him on the Presidents Cup team this year and the Ryder Cup team next year. If he can start driving it and putting it a little better, he's right back in it."
With Woods planning what he called a "busy summer," we should soon get to find out whether he's Presidents Cup-worthy. His next scheduled appearance is at the Memorial, which gives him a month to work on fine-tuning his game before things start ramping up.
Given his performance this week, Woods will need every bit of that time off if he hopes for a return to form.
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