AKRON, Ohio — He’s trending. And evolving. And still learning.
And he’s still playing, which is perhaps the best development of all.
What began as a potential season on the brink for Tiger Woods has become one of happy discovery and surprising success, reflected in his return to Firestone Country Club for this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Woods had to climb into the top 50 in the world to qualify for an event he has won a record eight times, a tall order after starting the year 656th and not competing for much of the previous two years because of a back injury.
But when he tied for sixth in the Open Championship at Carnoustie two weeks ago—after leading outright through 10 holes—Woods landed smack on the number and returns to the site of his last PGA Tour title in 2013.
He hasn’t won in his comeback season, but returning to Firestone for the first time since 2014 is a triumph all its own. It gives him another start before the year’s last major, next week’s PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club outside St. Louis, and another chance to improve his standing in the chase for a berth on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
“It was brought up to me in Tampa … I need to get in the top 50, or somewhere around there, to be able to make this event. That was certainly a goal of mine,” Woods said Wednesday. “I was just hoping to, one, play the tour long enough to be able to get an opportunity, but I also had to play well to do it and I was ranked pretty far in the world there. Starting last December, I was about 1,200 in the world and within a year to get down to 50, I think is a pretty good accomplishment, but it also got me into this event.”
It’s a bittersweet return of sorts. The tournament moves to Memphis next year. Firestone, which has held a professional tournament every year since 1954, will instead host the Senior Players Championship on the PGA Tour Champions.
“This event has been very special to me over the years, and it's sad to see it leave Firestone,” he said. “We certainly understand it. But for me, I've always had such great memories of this golf course.”
Woods, 42, first competed at Firestone South in the 1997 NEC World Series of Golf, but his memories of the course date to years earlier, during his amateur days, when he and his late father, Earl, played the South and North Course during a visit to a family friend in Cleveland.
“To be able to play when I was an amateur, or basically a junior golfer, to be able to play a tour golf course, that was always a pretty neat thing to say,” Woods shared. “For me, to be able to not only play a Tour course but be able to win on it a few times, that's very special.”
With his berth in the 73-man field, Woods likely is slated to compete five of the next six weeks and six times in an eight-week stretch, including the FedEx Cup playoffs, for which he hasn't qualified since 2013. That’s a lot of golf for a man who underwent spinal fusion surgery last April.
And, who knows, perhaps he’ll have even more golf ahead if he qualifies for the U.S. Ryder Cup team or plays well enough in this busy stretch to warrant a captain's pick from Jim Furyk. It probably doesn’t hurt his cause that he already is going to Paris as one of Furyk’s vice captains.
Asked to assess his form, speaking as a vice captain, Woods responded, “What would be the word … trending.”
Another word is evolving. “This entire year has been one that I've been evolving and I'm changing a few things,” he said. “Golf is very fluid, and I've been able to make change on the fly and they've worked.
“Going into this year, boy, there were so many unknowns. Even my clubs. I've changed shafts I don't know how many times throughout the year, because my swing has changed, my speed has changed, and I've had to change the settings on my driver, my 3-wood, my 5-wood. There's been so many things that have evolved this year that I've just had to try and wing it on the fly. As soon as things start to settle down, as I said, next year will be a little bit better.”
All things being equal, this year has been darn impressive.
Four top-10 finishes and eight in the top-25 in 12 starts, highlighted by his run at a 15th major title at the Open Championship. Woods briefly held the lead before his swing betrayed him while playing partner Francesco Molinari claimed the claret jug. Last week, the 14-time major winner chose to unwind and ameliorate his disappointment abroad, taking his two children to Switzerland.
“We had a great time hiking, being up in the mountains and just enjoying each other’s company,” he said.
He also had time to reflect on the setback at Carnoustie.
“Yeah, I did. As I said, it was going to sting for a while, and it certainly does because I had a great chance at it,” Woods said. “I played myself into a great position. I was tied for the lead at one point and I actually ended up leading outright for just a little bit. You know, I was kind of laughing at it because most of the media at the time were skeptical of my game plan. My game plan played myself right into a lead. So that part I was very positive about.”
The entire year has been full of positives. This week’s appearances is proof of that.