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Swirling winds keep Tiger on his toes
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.
Tiger Woods looked forward to strong winds at the Chevron World Challenge because, as he climbs back up golf's mountain, they’d be a gauge for his progress.
Winds expose bad ball-striking.
So what did he learn after Thursday's opening round at Sherwood Country Club?
"It was hard to tell anything out there because it was just dancing all over the place," said a visibly exhausted Woods, whose allergies didn’t react kindly to the gusting winds.
When he arrived at the seventh tee, already four under par, the notorious Santa Ana winds - the devil winds, as they’re known in southern California - within a moment transformed a serene morning into a day of mayhem for the elite 18-man field.
"The fan turned on," said a bemused Steve Stricker, who played alongside Woods.
Woods handled the swirling 35-mph gusts better than most, finishing with an impressive three-under par 69 that left him trailing only one man, Korea’s KJ Choi.
Stricker, the only other player to break 70, has played a lot of golf with Woods over the past three years, and was impressed with what he saw from the former world no. 1.
"He’s striking the ball so solidly," he said.
"His trajectory on his shots is really good. It was just tough out there, but he’s putting better and hitting it better, driving it better. He looks like he’s getting a lot of confidence back again.
"He looks like the Tiger of old."
There were certainly signs of the Tiger of old, particularly in the opening stretch.
On the first hole, he split the fairway with a long iron, then stuck a wedge to seven feet and made the putt. After having to lay up on the par-five second, he put another wedge to a few feet, converting for birdie.
The rub on him during his two-year winless streak has been that he doesn’t make the putts he once did. But on the fourth - maybe the toughest hole at Sherwood - he gouged a mid iron out of the left rough and, from 25 feet, converted an unlikely birdie.
But it was the way he played the fifth, another par five, that will give him great confidence that he's very much on the road back.
He drove beautifully, to be left with 230 yards to a front pin on an elevated green.
In the old days, when he was dominating the sport, Woods could hit long irons higher than any of his peers and have them land softly, holding greens on par fives to set up, at the least, a birdie.
One year, at the old Thanksgiving Skins game in Palm Springs, he hit a three wood from almost 270 yards that landed on the correct tier of a kidney-shaped green and stopped ten feet from the pin. Fred Couples, who can make a golf ball do amazing things himself, was left in awe after having seen his three wood run through the green.
"I’ve never seen anyone hit a pitching wedge that far before," he joked.
It's been some time since Woods has had that shot in his bag, lost in the no-man's-land between Butch Harmon's swing and the idiosyncratic ideas of Hank Haney.
But now, under Sean Foley's tutelage, the shot seems to be back in the arsenal.
"I had 230 (yards) up the hill, and I hit three-iron," Woods said.
"It worked out perfectly. It came off just exactly how I saw it."
Not that he’s yet altogether back, because he lipped out the eagle try from about 10 feet.
After the winds turned the place into the backdrop for an Edgar Allan Poe story, as Woods later conceded, it was hard to tell much.
He hung on and like his rivals, made mistakes.
The second shot from the left rough on nine that traveled about 12 feet couldn't have made him feel good, but the fact that he escaped with just a bogey helped soothe the psyche.
The bogeys on 15 and 16 were needless but the birdie on the treacherous little par 3 17th - a hole half the field made bogey or worse - made him feel a lot better.
"It’s tough out there, look at the scores. No one’s really doing much," he said.
"Anything under par today is a good day."
The next order of business is to not have a bad day.
It's been more than two years since Woods has shot in the 60s for four rounds.