“Bite, bite,” Tiger Woods said immediately after he hit his tee shot on the 17th hole in Saturday’s third round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. The former world number one player who once seemed to have a never to be released lock on the spot was five-under par for the round, and 10-under for the tournament, which he was leading.
But would his driver cooperate? Would it allow him to find fairways, and thereby hit his approach shots closer to the hole, and therefore have a better chance of making more birdie putts? Woods and his swing coach Sean Foley have clearly been making progress in, well, straightening out his driver. If he gets it going in the right direction regularly, watch out.
This time Woods’ ball found the rough, and he was disappointed. But, as the Golf Channel analyst said, Woods caught a break. His lie was an “absolute beaut,” in the rough. Woods had 186 yards from the rough to the hole, which was cut in the back right of the green. He controlled the ball flight of his approach, finishing well to the left of the hole. He didn’t short-side himself, the main objective. Two putts later he had his par, and maintained the lead.
Now Woods was on the tee of the 567-yard, par-five final hole. He striped his drive, and he knew it immediately in the same way he had realized his tee shot on the 17th was problematic. His tongue hung out as he bent over to pick up his tee. There was no need to wait until his tee shot came to a stop. He knew it was good.
Woods had 256 yards to the hole, cut in the front right of the green. The shot was over water, and he wanted to shape it from left to right. He’d been able to move the ball any which way he wanted when he was dominating the game. Now he did so again. There wasn’t any short-siding, one significant sign of a golfer who isn’t in form.
The ball flew high and it faded and its path was using the width of the green. Woods didn’t have what you would call a makeable eagle putt, but he’d put himself in ideal position for a two-putt birdie. His lag putt finished near the hole and he got that closing birdie to shoot six-under 66 and tie Englishman Robert Rock at 11-under 205 heading into the final round. This calls for getting up in the middle of the night or at least the very early Sunday morning to watch Woods in the last round.
It’s too early, of course, to declare that Woods is “back,” which all the golf world appears to want and which most people believe the game needs. It’s obvious that he is at least on his way back, given that he won the Chevron World Challenge in Thousand Oaks, Calif. last December and that he’s continuing to improve. He beat only 17 other golfers in the limited-field Chevron, but he won by hitting the shots he needed on the last two holes, which he birdied.
Now, in Abu Dhabi, Woods is still coming along quite well. He’s getting a huge appearance fee, and the golf course, while decent, is not exactly inspiring. But Woods said it does put a premium on driving, and, well, a golfer can only do what he’s asked to do. All the best players in the world gather only at majors. The PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open is on this week in San Diego, so the world’s top golfers are split between there and Abu Dhabi.
Still, Woods is playing against a full field that includes world number one Luke Donald and U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy. McIlroy is two shots behind Woods. He’s finding fairways, shaping shots, making putts, and looking again like he expects to be in contention in the final round of a tournament. It appears that he knows he’ll be there, not that he’s wishing and hoping and wondering.
“I'm playing well,” Woods said in Abu Dhabi. “ [I]feel like I'm swinging well and a lot of things that Sean and I have been working on are starting to feel very comfortable and consequently I'm shooting good scores.”
Sunday in Abu Dhabi approaches. Well, it’s not Breakfast at Wimbledon or the British Open, but it’s something—Woods in the Middle East, raising his game. It’s Woods tied for the lead starting the final round of a full-field tournament. It’s Woods finding his form, and scratching his way forward. It used to be almost a certainty that he would win when in such a position.
It’s no longer a certainty. Questions remain. Woods is in with a chance to win. If he plays the golf everybody knows he can play, it will bolster his confidence that much more. And that’s what he needs as the golf world inches closer to April’s Masters. Woods is all about majors, and that’s where he’s pointing.
For now, thought, he wants a strong final round and a win in Abu Dhabi. The questions are simple: Can he let it happen? Can he make it happen?
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein