It wasn’t pretty. Not compared to the show he staged on Thursday. But this ain’t ice-skating; no points for aesthetics in this game, especially on a Friday afternoon. And whatever he lacked in style is outweighed by where he sits on the scoreboard, which, for Tiger Woods, is in a tie for first heading into the weekend at the Tour Championship.
“Yeah, best way to describe it is I grinded out a round today,” Woods admitted. “For the most part of the day, I did that.”
It should be noted East Lake brings many a player to his knees, and Woods’ round was still among the best of the day, just four names bettering his two-under 68. How he got there remains something of a wonder.
Woods hit only seven fairways on his trek around East Lake. On most PGA Tour setups, as the Bomb-and-Gouge Era has proved, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. Can’t say the same for this course. The Bermuda rough here is a lot like Lady MacBeth; looks innocuous, but it will destroy you. That Woods, the leader in strokes gained/approach, hit a mere 10 greens off that driving performance should not be a surprise.
“I didn’t hit it very well overall today,” Woods said. “Didn’t quite have the sharpness that I had yesterday, and it was pretty evident.”
Yet he stayed afloat thanks to his short game, an area that’s taken its share of blame for his shortcomings this season. He scrambled his behind off, failing only twice to save par. “I hit a lot of good little recovery shots, and my touch was good,” Woods said.
Still, while his competitors enjoyed a solid start, Woods made the turn at even. That was two strokes behind playing mate Rickie Fowler, with runs by Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy pushing Tiger down the board. It conjured images of the BMW Championship, just two weeks ago, where Woods owned the first-round lead but fell to T-12 on Friday.
Before matters travelled too far down this road, Woods answered, and answered loudly, carding three birdies in a four-hole stretch, capped by a 23-footer on the par-3 15th.
It’s not known as a sports town, Atlanta. ESPN once referred to it as the worst in America, in fact. You’d argue that judging by the scene surrounding Tiger on Friday. Granted, the man always draws a crowd, Thursday included. But, even against the backdrop of a rejuvenated Tigermania, the fans were out in force. When Woods dropped that 23-footer, it sent roars that could be heard throughout the property, seemingly almost to Augusta.
“The people have been so supportive and appreciative,” Woods remarked. “I’ve been gone for a while and come back, and I hadn’t played this tournament in five years, and some of the people said they haven’t been out here in five years. That’s kind of nice that they’re coming out and supporting this event and supporting me, as well.”
Coupled with East Lake’s back nine taking a bite out of his aforementioned competition – except for Justin Rose, who toured the second nine in 33 strokes – Woods found himself with a two-shot lead after that birdie on the 15th.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 21, 2018
However, mentioned above, the rough is nothing to tangle with, and Woods paid dearly for a wayward tee ball on the 16th. His second found a cross bunker, buried so bad he had to knock it out sideways. The fourth wasn’t much better, and his putt for bogey came up short.
“In hindsight, I probably should have just pitched out and the worst I would make is five, and with my wedge game right now, a pretty high percentage I would have got that up-and-down,” Woods said. “But I thought I could sneak it up there and get up on the upslope and have a good angle in there, and it just didn’t work out.”
He bounced back with a par on the 17th, and a smoked drive on the par-5 18th left 225 yards. A sweet little 5-iron – if you can call hitting a 5-iron 225 yards “little” – left 34 feet for eagle. Though he didn’t replicate Thursday’s final-hole feats, he nudged it inside the friendship circle, converting the bird to grab a share of the lead with Rose at seven under.
That standing used to be routine for Woods. In 2018, it serves as a milestone of sorts: This is his first 36-hole co-lead since the 2015 Wyndham Championship.
More importantly, it signals what’s on the precipice.
The longest drive of the week for @TigerWoods.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 21, 2018
“It’s going to be fun,” Woods said. “Rosey and I have known each other for a very long time and been good friends, and we’ll have a good time tomorrow. We’re going to obviously be competing, but also I think we’re both going to enjoy competing against one another. We’ve still got a long way to go, still got 36 more holes to go, and there’s a lot of golf to be played.”
Since Tiger torched East Lake in 2007 to the tune of 23-under par, the average winning score at the Tour Championship is 10 under. Meaning more of Friday’s tough sledding should be in store. That it’s hotter than golf’s distance debate – the forecast calls for 90 degrees with 60 percent humidity – won’t make things easier.
Not that Woods seems to mind.
“I’ve won 14 Majors,” Woods reminded the media. “I’m pretty good at being patient.”
So are golf fans. They endured Tiger’s absence, and everything that entailed, with unabated hope. Tiger’s on the verge of rewarding their faith. A reward they’ll take, aesthetically pleasing or not.