The highlight of the day was the little pitch that landed soft as a butterfly’s blink, bounced twice and rolled the rest of the way like a well-struck putt, settling easily into the hole. But there was also the 25-foot birdie putt at his first hole Friday morning. And the driver he smoked past both his playing partners seven holes into his round. And the wedge he stuck to two feet. And the beautiful bunker shot to save par on his final hole.
All that’s wonderful. But here was Tiger Woods at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, standing over his ball in the middle of the second fairway. It wasn’t terribly long ago when the list of questions about Woods and his game was interminable. Will his body hold up? Can he still putt? What’s with chunking all these chips? Each of Woods’s shots in his salad days invited possibility. For a while, each shot seemed to invite calamity.
“It’s basically a gift to be able to play again,” Woods said the other day.
The gift, on a searing Friday at the Quicken Loans National, was watching this version of Woods play golf. Take all the shots from above because they’re worthy of further discussion. But when he got to his ball in the second fairway, the tee was 330 yards behind him. By the measurement of his caddie, Joe LaCava, he had 280 yards to the front of the green. He pulled out 3-wood.
“Smoked it,” he said.
There aren’t many days like this, not enough to win a golf tournament — yet. But on Friday, at what is all but certainly the final version of Woods’s very own Washington tournament, he served notice that he still has all the shots. Every single one of them.
This 3-wood, it was gorgeous, a little cut from the left side of the fairway that carried those 280 yards and ran up perhaps 40 feet past the pin on a massive, 606-yard par-5. Because Woods began his second round on the back nine, the second hole was Woods’s 11th of the day. When he easily two-putted, he had the sixth of what would become seven birdies in his round.
So there you have it: Tiger Woods shot a 5-under 65 to put himself in the thick of a golf tournament entering the weekend. Through 36 holes, he is 5 under, four shots off the lead of Ryan Armour, Brian Gay and Beau Hossler, who, at 23, is 19 years younger than Woods.
Given that golf, particularly to the non-golf fan, still exists in a binary world — either Tiger is playing, or Tiger is not playing — Washington’s local stop now gets a boost over what promises to be a sweltering weekend. Tiger’s not just here. He could contend.
We know, from what he did at the Valspar Championship in Tampa and the following week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, what that still means. It means attention and buzz that the game’s best players — Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas — still can’t deliver.
If Washington is preparing to fall off the PGA Tour calendar — and it is — maybe Woods can give it a weekend worth remembering.
“I’m not that far back,” Woods said. “I’m in a similar position to where I was at Valspar. The scores aren’t going to be that low, and it’s going to be long grinds. It’s going to be hot. It’s going to be long grinds.”
If you follow the PGA Tour week-to-week, you have heard Woods over the course of this year talk about the uncertainty he faced at this point — heck, at most points — last year. Because he has said them time and again — how getting out of bed was difficult, how he wasn’t so much as allowed to swing a putter, how competing on tour was such a distant thought it seemed laughable — it’s easy to become numb to how significant his injuries were.
When you watch him stand over that 3-wood and rip it those 280 yards at No. 2 here, say to yourself: four back surgeries. Count ’em. Four.
“No one’s had clubhead speeds as what I’ve had on the tour this year with a lower back fusion,” Woods said. “These are things that I didn’t know I could do, and all of a sudden, I’m doing it. I’m competing. I’m playing, and I’m having just a great time doing it.”
He has said all this before, but that doesn’t make it less true. The simple motion it took to float his chip on TPC Potomac’s 18th hole — his ninth of the day — and send it across the green for the birdie that kept his round going? A year ago, he couldn’t do even that.
And for at least one round, he putted a bit like his old self, too. Yeah, there was a three-putt at the par-3 17th that led to one of just two bogeys on the day. But the mallet-style putter he put in his bag this week after a considerable amount of deliberation made birdie putts of at least 18 feet at Nos. 10, 12, 15 and 3. Plus, when the round could have crumbled, he scrambled. A slightly wayward tee shot at the eighth left him in a front bunker. He got up and down. His tee shot at the par-3 ninth, his final hole of the day, found a front bunker, too. Again, he saved his par.
“I didn’t want to lose it on the last couple holes,” Woods said. “And I could have easily lost it.”
So what have we found? It’s still staggering to think the last of Woods’s 14 major championships came more than a decade ago, at the 2008 U.S. Open. But even more stunning is that his last victory of any kind came in August 2013 at Firestone in Akron, Ohio, where he has won eight times.
Since then, Woods has missed essentially 2½ years of competition — and has missed 10 cuts when he did turn up. From 1996 to 2011, he missed 10 cuts. Staggering.
So we’re dealing with a different guy in different circumstances. The question that matters: Do all those good shots, all the ability that’s still in there, mean he can still win?
“As the years progress,” Woods said, “I think I’m not that far away from putting it together where I can win.”
On Friday, he put it together. Put all the other hubbub about his tournament and his health aside. When Tiger Woods does that, it’s still a pure pleasure to watch.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.