AKRON, Ohio – Jason Day had an impish grin when he stepped in front of a microphone adjacent to the familiar Firestone Country Club clubhouse to chat with a gaggle of reporters. He’d just shot 65, a good score on the vaunted South Course no matter how easy it might be playing – and it played easy Thursday morning.
But he had just walked 18 holes paired with Tiger Woods. So, he knew what came next.
“Let’s just go ahead and get the Tiger questions out of the way first,” he said, trying unsuccessfully not to laugh.
Yeah, yeah, you played well, Jason … but what about Tiger?
Golf is now just about back to where it was in 2001. Day, 30 wasn’t here for the original hysteria of Tigermania. Now he’s starting to get a sense of what’s happening again, which is heading toward Tigermania 2.0.
The media and the public suddenly are less interested in Day and Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy and the rest of today’s newly minted stars compared with how much they’re wild about Woods.
Our new reality is approaching an old reality: It’s all Tiger all the time … again.
© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Jason Day (left) gets a close-up of Tiger Woods and his attempt to turn back the clock during the 1st round of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
I thought golf kicked its Tiger habit and it would have stayed kicked, I believe, if Woods had not unexpectedly come back as strong as he has. But here he is, with four top-6 finishes this year, coming off a British Open at Carnoustie during which he held the solo lead with eight holes to play. Woods opened with 66 at the Bridgestone Invitational, which was a decent start but not a great one given the soft, receptive greens. He played in the morning wave, and by the end of the day stood tied for 14th, four strokes behind leader Ian Poulter (scores).
That doesn’t matter. Do a Google search and see how many mentions you can find of Kyle Stanley, who shot the low score of 63 in the morning here, or Poulter. You’ll find stories about Day, of course, but it will be filled with his views of Woods. That’s all he talked about with the media, because that’s all they wanted to hear about. Every PGA Tour player once again can look forward to being asked his opinion about Woods on a daily basis.
Woods was golf’s Most Interesting Man in the World when he was in his prime. Now that he’s in comeback mode after back fusion, he cuts a sentimental figure for many (but not all) fans, and he’s even more interesting. The first time around, Woods often flattened fields and competitors with ease. If he had the lead, you could book it.
He hasn’t won in five years, and he hasn’t won a major championship in 10 years. Woods is more compelling now because he isn’t a sure thing. The primetime Tiger would have surged into the lead at Carnoustie and barreled toward victory while his pursuers faded. Instead, Woods made two quick mistakes and did the fading himself.
We can tweak an advertising line that former rival Phil Mickelson once made famous: What will Tiger do next? He might win. Maybe this week. Maybe next week at the PGA Championship, which would set off a frenzy that could exceed Tigermania 1.0. Or he might not win at all this year. We don’t know, but the suspense is building, if not quite yet killing us.
Thursday morning’s birdie-fest at the South Course couldn’t help but feel familiar. Such as, for instance, the 50-foot birdie putt that Woods rolled in at the 18th hole, his ninth of the day after starting on the back nine. And yes, it was center-cut, just like the old days.
“I was on the eighth green, and Tiger must have holed a birdie putt on 7 (he did, a mere 25-footer) because we could hear it,” said McIlroy, who matched Day’s 65.
Asked how a Woods roar is different now, McIlroy chuckled and added, “It’s still the same. I think just because I’ve competed with him for a while that maybe I’ve been desensitized to it a little bit. It’s great to see. It energizes the entire game and tournaments he plays at.”
McIlroy is 29 and, like Day, he wasn’t at the wrong end of the Woods steamroller in the early 2000s, the one that smothered Ernie Els and Mickelson and the rest of a golfing generation. The fact that McIlroy thinks Woods’ resurrection is “great to see” is a comment with the potential to bite him on the backside in a careful-what-you-wish-for kind of way.
Thursday with Woods (and Day) was not a definitive moment. There were a few important things to note, however.
One, Woods didn’t hit it all that well, yet he still posted 4 under par. That’s a positive.
Two, he drained a couple of long putts but still missed some shorter-range birdie opportunities. His latest comeback will go only as far as his putter takes him. He looks great at times, and then he doesn’t. What’s that mean? I don’t know, just drink your half-empty glass and shut up.
Our opinions about Woods don’t matter. What’s telling is what other players think about Woods. And Day is sold on Woods’ return to form.
“He’s out there and he’s focused,” Day said. “You could tell he wants it because he’s taking a good long time hitting these putts. Not only the 5- and 10-footers; it looks like he wants to hole every putt.
“He’s won 79 times, right? You lose touch of it, but it’s still in there somewhere. Once he finds the confidence, then he’s not too far away from going on a pretty big tear here. Hopefully, we can just stay out in front of him.”
Feel free to ignore Woods if you wish, but here’s the reality: That’s getting more difficult to do with each passing day.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle