News & ToursDecember 1, 2011

Slowly, but surely, Tiger becoming recognizable again

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- As Tiger Woods was getting ready to putt on the sixth green at Sherwood Country Club in the first round of the Chevron World Challenge, someone found the switch for the Santa Ana winds. You half expected Toto, Dorothy and the Wicked Witch to come flying by on their way to Oz.

Just like that, a round that started in benign conditions and looked like it might be something truly special, was turned into a grind. Nevertheless, Tiger was rock-solid, except for one two-hole stretch, and provided yet more evidence that he is closing in on his old form.

Woods, who made four ridiculously easy birdies in the first five holes, battled winds that gusted to 35 mph for a three-under-par 69. There were just enough good shots -- piercing irons and a few solid five-foot putts -- to say the day was a success. And there were enough bumps in the road to remind everyone that mastery of golf is rented and never owned.

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Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

"He's striking the ball so solidly," said Steve Stricker, who was paired with Woods and shot a 69 as well. "His trajectory on his irons was really good. He's putting better. He's looking like the Tiger of old." And that's a guy we haven't seen since sometime late in 2009.

One of those Tiger-of-old shots came on the par-5 fifth hole when he hit a high cut 3-iron from 230 yards that landed oh-so-softly on the green and yield a two-putt birdie. It was one of the shots that when Woods was at his best really only he could hit. It was one of those shots that just make you say, "Wow!"

Related: Tiger's tumultuous two-year timeline

"You can't bump the ball around this golf course," Woods said about the difficulty of playing Sherwood in the wind. "You can't bounce it onto the greens. You have to thrown it up in the air. And the wind wasn't just blowing hard, it was changing directions. Anything under par was a good score today."

Woods, who trails leader K.J. Choi by three strokes going into Friday's second round as he tries to end a winless streak that is now in its third year, had some concerning moments despite his mostly solid play. They were reminders that 72 holes of stroke play is a constant battle with focus.

On No. 15, he needed to make a five-footer for bogey after his tee shot on the par-3 flew the green -- "What the hell happened," he said to himself in disbelief -- and his flop shot from an awkward stance in the rough came up short of the green. On he next hole, he made his worst swing of the day and popped up his tee shot with a 3-wood, barely getting to the fairway and made a bogey on the par-5.

If this feels familiar, it should. We have been here before. Woods has teased us with stretches of great golf, even multiple rounds of stellar play in the same tournament. But he has yet to sustain it for four rounds. That's next on the to-do list. But victory, which once seemed remote, now seems inevitable.

As Woods walked onto the 18th tee box Thursday, a child about five years old said to his father, "Is that Tiger?" Woods heard the remark, smiled and said to the boy, "What's up, dude?"

Certainly, there have been enough bad shots and poor putts over the last two years that we have all asked at some point, "Is that Tiger?"

The laundry list of challenges thrown Tiger's way -- some self-inflicted -- are familiar to even the most casual golf fan. Knee surgeries, a sore Achilles, swing changes, divorce, shared custody of his two children and endorsement partners who abandoned him.

Certainly, as the scandal that unraveled his life unfolded, we all asked, "Is that Tiger?" and we all wondered, "What's up, dude?" We lost a guy with an aura of invincibility; we lost a persona that seemed perfect; and we lost those breathtaking golf shots -- those 230-yard cut 3-irons that land oh-so soft -- and it was sad.

During those first six holes Thursday at the Chevron, the answer to the question, "Is that Tiger?" was a resounding "yes." Perhaps not all that was lost will be regained, but the golf part looks like it is getting close.

Stay tuned. We may soon be seeing the old Tiger again on the golf course. But there is also clearly still work to do. That's what makes this so darn fascinating. "Is that Tiger?" Maybe. We'll find out, dude.

-- Ron Sirak

Follow on Twitter: @ronsirak

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