San Martin, CA: With healthy legs, a new caddy and a freshly signed endorsement contract with a watch-maker much better than the one that dumped him for good this August, Tiger Woods appeared ready to turn over a metaphorical new leaf at the Frys.Com Open, at the sublime CordeValle Resort golf course, not far south of San Jose. Alas, thanks to wayward drives and three missed putts from roughly five or less feet, he shot an opening round two over par 73, and found himself in a tie for 86th out of the 132 player field. It was not exactly the result Captain Freddy Couples was expecting, when he mau-maued Woods into playing at least one Fall Series event if Woods truly wanted a spot on the upcoming U.S. President’s Cup team.
However, no matter what one thinks about the current state of Tiger Wood’s personal issues, behavior, his much-criticized swing coach Sean Foley, and his game current and future, the man clearly draws a crowd that wants to see him play like the Tiger of old. And when he ground out a 68 in the second round and made the cut, declaring that he now had a chance to win over the weekend, the Woods of days gone by was back, at least for a day.
While attendance at Frys.com was expected to double from about 30,000 during the entire week of last year’s event to 70,000 this time around, one tournament official noted that Thursday’s crowd was “about five times the size of that at first round last year.” According to Media Relations Director Chris Kaplan, three times as many media credentials were issued this year as opposed to last, and about 300 additional volunteers were needed to manage the herd following Woods, British Open Champion Louie Oosthuizen and the top U.S. Amateur player, UCLA student Patrick Cantlay.
Indeed, with several thousands fans swarming the fairways and greens around the trio and moving ahead a couple holes to secure good vantages, marshals – – and perhaps more uniformed law enforcement officers than are seen in lower Manhattan – – were clearly straining to keep the crowd quiet, still and preventing small groups and individuals from jumping ropes and going off-road, taking shortcuts across hills of native grasses.
With the ever-present on-course Golf Channel broadcaster Roger Maltbie leading the way, Woods teed off on the first hole with a solid drive that stayed in the fairway, hit a second shot that stopped within four feet of the cup, and proceeded to roll in a birdie that triggered a roar. Same old Tiger, it seemed. During Wednesday’s press conference he’d offered many the same bland answers given in years past, including one with that familiar arrogant confidence. On course he had the same game-face, coldly ignoring the frequent encouraging comments from crowd. And yet, by the second hole the new Tiger was also on display.
Pros Putting for Pars Last as Long as Dogs That Chase Cars
His tee shot found a fairway bunker on the par four, second hole. Off-balance on his second shot, it went into a greenside bunker. It took him two to get out, just like a weekend hacker. That bogey was followed by yet another on the par three, 230-yard third hole, when his tee flew too far, hit the back of the green and rolled off, leaving several in the gallery to wonder whether Woods’ new caddie, the veteran Joe LaCava, had figured out the yardages irons of his new boss. (Would Stevie Williams, who until he was recently fired carried for Woods for 12 years, have known better, since a later tee shot on the par three 16th also sailed the green?) Although Woods chipped to within three feet on the third hole, his par putt lipped out.
On the fourth Woods tee shot drifted left and down a hill into the rough, narrowly avoiding rolling further into a ditch in which the ball would certainly have been lost. Although he got up and down for a par, Wood’s tee shot on the 6th also found a fairway bunker. Time and again the world’s former top player was putting to save pars, which as we all know is analogous to what happens to dogs that chase cars. He’s dead, Fido. But in another look at golf’s future, Cantlay played like Cool Hand Luke and finished the day at 2 under par.
Of course, this was Woods’ first tournament since he missed the cut at the PGA Championship. But now he says that his sore knee and aching Achilles tendon have healed, enabling him to practice with his new Sean Foley swing. In the third round he shot yet another 68, but with two sloppy bogies on par three holes. Tied for 38th and nine shots back of the leader, Briny Baird, Woods’ chance of winning, his still stated intent whenever entering a tournament, is remote.
That Woods is even here is somewhat remarkable. Notorious for avoiding smaller Tour stops and especially those in the Fall Series, Woods also does not all that often embrace his Northern California-Stanford connections, although he plans to attend the Cardinal-Colorado football on Saturday afternoon. But with LaCava on his bag, things seemed to be looking up for Woods for the first time since that fateful collision with a fire-hydrant and the collapse of his marriage, reputation and endorsement income. This week he signed an agreement with Rolex, which could well be a step up from his relationship with Tag Heuer.
But what about the golf? Since Woods really wanted a place on the President’s Cup team, he was pretty much forced by Couples into playing at least one event. Frys.com got lucky, very lucky, for the tournament attendance and the parallel media exposure for one of the better small and exclusive resorts on the West Coast. And in yet another remarkable story, Ernie Els went into the final round tied for second. Still, the biggest crowds followed Woods like the sun’s gravity pulls planets.
Moreover, Woods clearly has the gallery on his side, and as the Frys.com Open demonstrated it will likely remain that way no matter when or if his game comes around. After all, John Daly still draws supportive fans, and Daly was never on the superstar level of Woods, not fell from grace so rapidly, albeit probably equally. More than anything, most fans apparently want to see the old Tiger, with whatever warts, swearing, fist pumps and all, return to his tournament-winning form.