PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Webb Simpson didn’t change golf last weekend at the Players Championship, but Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas might have.
Those three players, paired in one of the so-called Super Groups during the first two rounds, were largely responsible for Tiger Woods getting to play on the weekend at TPC Sawgrass. All three made crucial gaffes late Friday afternoon – McIlroy doubled the 17th after a splashdown; Spieth three-putted the 18th and Thomas bogeyed the final hole after failing to get his third shot onto the putting surface.
Those blunders irrevocably moved the cutline to include Woods and the other players at 1 under par after it appeared likely that Woods was going to miss qualifying for the weekend.
Instead, Woods was granted two more rounds, and he seized the opportunity. This tournament might be a career highlight for Simpson, in some ways even bigger than his 2012 U.S. Open triumph, because he dominated the deepest field in golf (scores).
But the weekend at the Players may be more remembered as the turning point in the Tiger Woods Comeback Story. All he did was shoot 65-69 on Saturday-Sunday, charge from 14 shots behind the leader and tie for second through 12 holes of the final round, four shots behind Simpson.
Woods stalked his prey like the Tiger of old. His third round was electrifying. During that 65, Woods was 8 under through 12 holes. On Sunday, he was 6 under par through 12 holes and riding a serious roll following birdies at 9, 11 and 12.
Two more birdies, if Woods could’ve gotten them, might have been enough to make Simpson nervous. In the early 2000s, Woods’ name on a leaderboard practically caused conniptions. Simpson seemed incredibly relaxed all week, but if Woods had gotten closer – well, we’ll never know, will we?
The return of Simpson and how he overcame the anchored putting ban and got his game back is a good story. He could be an unexpected bonus on which Team USA wasn’t counting for September’s Ryder Cup.
The return of Woods is even bigger. There’s the Ryder Cup, for starters. He was an assistant captain for the U.S. team that won the last match two years ago in Minnesota, but now he looks more like a participant. There’s golf on TV, for another. When Woods contended in Tampa and Orlando earlier this year, the ratings were way up. He remains far more compelling to viewers than anyone else in the game.
And there’s The Countdown To Jack, just maybe. It’s still a reach. Nothing says Woods still has what it takes to win another major championship. It’s been 10 years since his last one. From what we saw over the weekend, there’s nothing that says he doesn’t have what it takes to win another major championship, either. Jack Nicklaus holds the Holy Grail mark at 18 majors. Woods stands at 14. Woods, at 42 and beating the odds after undergoing back-fusion surgery last year, would re-ignite a new level of TigerMania if he could snag another major.
We’ve gone from being sure that he would roll past 18 majors with ease to being sure that he had little chance of playing again, much less winning again, to being convinced that he still is capable of special things.
“You never thought the 2008 U.S. Open was going to be his last major,” said Steve Stricker, who can be considered an actual friend of Woods’. “He’s just going to keep improving the more he plays. He seems like a different person on the course, doesn’t he? He’s more engaged, and he’s enjoying it. It’s fun to see him have fun. I think he can win.”
This version of Woods – let’s call it Tiger 3.0 – is different from the original in a lot of ways. His swing is different but still very good. He used his driver effectively on the weekend at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course, maybe the best control he’s had of that club in more than a decade. I hope you caught his 354-yard blast down the middle Sunday at the 14th hole. His putting looks good. He definitely doesn’t putt like a 42-year-old with a lot of miles on him. His short game and his putting rank among the best in golf – maybe not the best but close enough.
All that remains is whether he can stay in one piece – so far, so good – and finish off a tournament when he’s in the hunt. The old Woods was a range rat who pounded balls for hours. The new Woods can’t do that. He’ll have to adjust.
“It’s nice to see him healthy, even if he can’t hit 800 balls a day,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said. “When you’re in your 40s, your swing is like writing your name on a check in a restaurant. You don’t think about how you do it. It’s there.”
Woods didn’t answer the question about closing Saturday or Sunday. He let two strokes slip on the last six holes in the third round and three strokes over the final six holes Sunday with extenuating circumstances. His approach shot at the tough 14th was right on line but came up short and rolled off a false front, back into the fairway. He did not get up and down. At 17, he dunked one into the lake when he had no choice but to fire at the back-right pin at that point because he was five strokes back. A gust of wind, Woods said, knocked that one down.
Let’s take a longer view of his finish, however. The low score on the weekend over the final 36 holes was 134, 10 under par. Three players shot it: Jason Dufner, Justin Thomas and Woods.
Woods isn’t going to play perfect golf the way he did in 2001, but we saw some red-flag items on the positive side: his driving and his putting.
“I played really good today,” he said after Sunday’s finish. “I hit it so good. It was nice.”
He was asked whether he had any doubt that he can win again. “No, no,” he said without hesitation.
Of course there isn’t. He’s Tiger Woods. And may still be again.