Ordinarily, you’d look at a 5-under-67 after Tiger Woods’ name and think that’s a pretty good score at a major championship. But when you look at the British Open leaderboard and see that John "Train Wreck" Daly shot a 66, you might want to hold off on plans for Tiger’s victory parade.
There's no denying Thursday marked a good start for Woods on the Old Course at St. Andrews. He drove the ball well on a course where you really have to work hard to drive it badly. He putted well with a new putter that features a grooved face. He registered just one bogey on the day.
But it’s one round on one day on a golf course that was playing easier than a pitch-and-putt. In the morning, when Woods and Daly teed off, there was no wind, no rain, no sun, no anything except a gentle mist that softened the greens and left the Old Course there to be abused by the greatest golfers in the world.
“She was naked this morning,” Tom Watson said of the revered old course. “She was defenseless.”
Indeed, she was, and no one was bragging about breaking par in the morning rounds. It would have been like a healthy teenager bragging about getting out of bed before noon.
Rory McIlroy, the 21-year-old phenom who is still looking forward to the day when he has to shave, shot a 9-under 63, matching the record for lowest round ever shot in a major. The measure of St. Andrew’s toothlessness was that the Northern Irishman’s great round gave him no better than a two-shot lead over Louis “Who’s He?” Oosthuizen, a South African who failed to make the cut in the Masters and U.S. Open. Daly and three others were at 6 under, and Tiger was in a large group another shot back.
When you look at it in that context, Tiger’s round was OK. Call it encouraging, if you wish, because that fits, too. But don’t take it as a signal that he’s finally got his game back together eight months after the Thanksgiving meltdown that crippled his marriage and so dramatically changed his life.
Before his life-altering experience, Tiger would have shot 10 under with the benign conditions he faced Thursday. The fact he could muster only a 67 shows how much he’s still hurting.
Tiger has finished in the top four of the Masters and the U.S. Open this year. In his other tournaments, he’s been less impressive, working hard at times just to make the cut (and to miss the cut). At no time in his comeback has he looked as if he can put four rounds together the way the old Tiger Woods could be counted on to do week in and week out.
Logic says Tiger still has his enormous talent and at some point will put his game back together and resume his once-relentless pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major titles. There is no physical reason why it shouldn’t happen.
But sports aren’t always logical, especially when an athlete’s most pesky organ — his brain — gets involved. Tiger has looked as if what he lacks more than a consistent drive and a reliable putter is his old confidence. The old Tiger, who knew he was the greatest golfer on the planet, has not been sighted in almost a year. In that fellow’s place is a man who plays and talks as if he remembers that feeling and would dearly love to find a way to get it back.
That’s why it’s a bad idea to draw any conclusions from one decent round of golf on a defenseless course. In Tiger’s case, you can’t even draw any conclusions if he comes back on Friday and Saturday and repeats his performance.
The only way Tiger can convince anyone that he’s back is by getting to Sunday in position to win and then taking the title.
At his stage in life, there are no moral victories. He has had four months of play and practice now to get things in order. At any other time in his life, that was more than enough time to fine-tune the greatest game in captivity.
Not this time. It’s evident that the extra-marital affairs and public humiliation affected Tiger at a deeply personal level. Most of us are incapable of even imagining what it must be like to be him. Speaking for myself, I don’t want to find out.
He can say he has recovered. He can say he’s all right. He can say he’s driving it well and rolling it straight.
None of it means anything. It has always been about winning where Tiger Woods’ career is involved. When he starts doing that, we’ll talk.