Old Tiger Woods Back at Sherwood

The sure way for a player to make headlines is to say something about Tiger Woods that can be interpreted as anything but high praise. Rory McIlroy was no exception.

In an interview with Irish newspapers in August — one week after Woods had his worst performance of his pro career — McIlroy was quoted as saying he would love to face Woods in the Ryder Cup if his game did not drastically improve.

“I’d still say the same thing,” McIlroy said Friday after playing with Woods for the first time when it counted.

Woods was 4 under through his first five holes at the Chevron World Challenge, didn’t make a bogey, missed only two greens and shot a 66 to build a four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell, with McIlroy dropping three shots over the last three holes to fall five behind.

It was the first time all year Woods had a 36-hole lead, and his 13-under 131 was by six shots his lowest two-round total this year.

Woods typically remembers such comments about him — think back to his 9-and-8 win in the Match Play Championship over Stephen Ames, who had questioned the accuracy of his tee shots. Upon hearing McIlroy’s comments in the weeks leading up to the Ryder Cup, however, Woods cut him slack.

“At least Rory said, ‘Unless his game improves,’” Woods noted at the BMW Championship.

McIlroy said nothing he should regret, nor does he. Woods was playing his worst in early August, two weeks before his divorce became final. At Firestone, where he shot 18-over 298, Woods beat only one player in the field.

Even in Shanghai last month, McIlroy spoke for dozens of players when asked whether the mystique of Woods had changed during the worst season of his career.

“If I stepped on the first tee with him nowadays, would I feel, ‘Do I have a genuine chance of beating him?’ I would say yes,” McIlroy said. “A year ago, I would have said I had to play my best game, and he would have to play average for me to have a chance.”

McIlroy has heard plenty of stories of how poorly Woods had played this year, and he certainly could see the scores. Oddly enough, when the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland finally got a chance to see for himself, Woods didn’t look much different from how most people remember him.

The quality of his shots looked like they belonged to a guy who has won 14 majors. Woods holed just about every putt he looked at. And he was comfortably ahead on the leaderboard.

“I suppose that is,” McIlroy said with a laugh when someone suggested he never got a chance to see Woods at his worst. “He’s playing nicely, and he’s still working pretty hard on what he’s trying to do. It looks like it’s really coming on. I haven’t watched a lot of him this year, but what I have seen, it just looked like mentally he wasn’t quite there. I think he’s in a better place.”

There has always been mutual respect between two players a generation apart. Woods thought enough of his raw talent and polish that he said McIlroy had what it took to be No. 1 in the world.

It looked that way Friday as they chatted amiably along the fairways at Sherwood Country Club, and had a long discussion about the swing while waiting for the fairway to clear on the par-5 13th.

“I’ve always got along good with Tiger,” McIlroy said.

When told about McIlroy’s quotes in the Irish press about how he would love to face Woods in the Ryder Cup, Woods responded in businesslike fashion at Celtic Manor, “Me, too.”

Whether he would have been equipped to handle McIlroy in October won’t be known, for they never played in the same match. What is becoming more clear is that Woods is getting closer than ever to his past form.

“The tide is turning,” caddie Steve Williams said as they walked off the third green.

That comment followed a superb par save from Woods, when he used his putter from off the green to go up a steep slope and let the ball trickle 10 feet toward the cup, stopping just over 3 feet away.

On the previous hole, Woods lashed at a 4-iron from a hanging lie so severely that he stumbled down the hills upon making contact, composing his posture just in time to see the ball land 8 feet to the right of the cup. He made that for eagle.

Woods’ last three rounds are 65-65-66, starting with the final round in Australia. He played one of his most complete rounds on Thursday, and he was just as solid on Friday, even if he didn’t hit the ball quite as crisply.

“I hit a lot of pure putts,” Woods said. “I wasn’t quite as sharp as yesterday, but I was able to piece it together and figure out how to hit better shots when I was struggling a little bit. I hit a couple loose shots and all of a sudden, ‘OK, this is what I need to do to fix it.’ And I fixed it. So that was nice.”

Still, he missed only two greens in regulation, and the closest he came to bogey was on the final hole when he ran his birdie attempt some 5 feet by the hole. He made that for a bogey-free round, a rarity this year.

The result was his name atop the leaderboard, the first time he has held the 36-hole lead since the Australian Masters last November, and his largest 36-hole lead since he was up four over Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship last year.

Yang won at Hazeltine in what was considered a major shock.

Woods losing a four-shot lead over the weekend on a course where he hasn’t lost since 2005 might not be so surprising because he still has work to do on his swing. The shock this time might be if he holds on to win.