What a difference six days and some 2,700 miles can make. Woods looked like a new player as he opened the Florida Swing with a solid 70 in The Honda Classic at PGA National. Thursday's round may have only matched his lowest score in this nascent comeback, but it was undoubtedly his strongest play since his return.
“I feel like I’m really not that far off,” Woods said. “Today was a day that I’m really proud of because I missed the ball in the correct spots. I didn’t do that in L.A.”
Woods’ stat line wasn’t overly impressive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. He hit half his fairways and 10 of 18 greens. Most importantly, the majority of his misses were not far from his target.
PGA National’s Champion Course is one of the toughest on TOUR, but Woods was able to keep even his worst shots out of the water hazards that have given the course its notorious reputation. Riviera and Torrey Pines are not pushovers, but PGA National is one of those water-lined Florida courses where players can rack up penalty strokes in a hurry. Justin Thomas remembers taking nine penalty drops when he missed the cut here in his rookie season.
Woods did have two big misses Thursday, both hit with the one club that continues to plague him: the driver. The rest of his game looked solid as he controlled his trajectory and shaped his shots through the strong South Florida winds that blew even early Thursday morning. His tee shot at the 12th hole, his third of the day, flew well left of the fairway and came to rest behind a mobile concession stand that had to be moved before he could attempt his approach shot. On the sixth hole, his drive sailed so far right that even he had to laugh as he walked back to his bag.
He saved par both times. Woods only had two over-par holes Thursday, a bogey and double bogey, but offset them with three birdies. He was only four shots off Alex Noren’s lead after the morning wave completed play.
Woods bemoaned his inconsistency as he left last week’s Genesis Open, but this time he was on the right side of the variance that is inherent in this game. Woods said he didn’t make swing changes after he returned from California but continued to work on the same keys that he’s focused on since returning to the PGA TOUR.
“I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there,” Woods said. “I had to hit a lot of knock-down shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways and, occasionally downwind, straight up in the air. I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”
The double-bogey, at the par-5 third hole, started when he hit his driver into a fairway bunker and was forced to lay far back from the green. He hit his 6-iron approach into a bunker, left that shot in the rough and then missed a 4-foot putt. Woods hit driver five times Thursday, finding the fairway just once. He hit six of nine fairways when employing an iron or 3-wood off the tee.
This was just the second time this season that he hit at least half his fairways and greens on the same day. It also was the first round that he was in the positive in all four Strokes Gained categories. He said it was “easily” his best ball-striking round of the season.
Brandt Snedeker could offer perspective after playing with Woods in the third round at Torrey Pines and Thursday. Woods shot 70 in their previous round together despite hitting just three fairways.
“His iron play was significantly better today than it was at Torrey. That’s what I expected to see,” Snedeker said. “This is way tougher (than Torrey), iron-wise. It’s not as tough off the tee. You don’t have to hit as many drivers around here, but the approaches are way tougher. He controlled his ball-flight really well, hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey because he was just kind of rusty. It was cool to see him flight the ball, hit some little cut shots and three-quarter shots and some stuff that I’m accustomed to seeing him do.”
Woods’ first two birdies came after hitting something shorter than driver off the tee. After teeing off on No. 10, he birdied two of his first four holes and his name appeared atop the leaderboard. He made his only bogey on his front nine after hitting his approach shot at No. 16 into a greenside bunker. The double bogey at his 12th hole dropped him to 1 over, but he hit a wedge shot close at the next hole to return to even par.
Woods had a chance to turn in a sub-par scorecard, but missed birdie putts of 14 feet and 20 feet on his final two holes.
He couldn’t get it under par, but it was progress nonetheless.