LOS ANGELES — After dazzling the crowd at Riviera Country Club on Thursday with three straight birdies in his final three holes to shoot 2-under in his first PGA Tour round in over 844 days, things looked a bit different for Tiger Woods on Friday. He shot a 3-over 74 to finish the first two rounds at 1-over. It is still enough for him to make the cut.
Given a layoff of seven months since his last competitive round of golf at The Open, Woods making the cut would be no small feat. Our experts weigh in on his return to competitive golf:
How did Woods look on Friday vs. Thursday?
Mark Schlabach: In terms of walking and his swing, not much looked different from Thursday to Friday. I think playing on Friday wasn’t as much fun, and he didn’t seem to be interacting with his playing partners, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, as much as he did a day earlier. Woods seemed to make a point to interact with the fans. I think his frustration with his putting probably drained him of some of the adrenaline he had in the opening round. I couldn’t believe Woods actually admitted that he had butterflies and nerves on Thursday.
Paolo Uggetti: Woods wasn’t that noticeably worse when walking around Riviera on Friday, but as the birdies stopped dropping on the back nine, he seemed to slow down his walk a bit. After missing the fairway right on the ninth hole (his last hole of the day) he was the last to walk up the fairway in his group, and he took his time with seemingly every step. Given that the turnaround from Thursday to Friday was a quick one that, as Woods said, required plenty of ice and treatment overnight, it was no surprise he may have slowed down and experienced more discomfort in the second round. Endurance will continue to be his biggest test this week and beyond.
How much did playing with Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas help him out?
Schlabach: I think it was absolutely the best pairing Woods could have asked for to get his competitive juices flowing again. He really seems to love poking JT and Rory when he drives the ball past them. It doesn’t sit well with them that a 47-year-old player who has undergone myriad surgeries on his back, neck, knees and right leg can still smash a ball past them.
Uggetti: Apparently a lot. Maybe it’s the long time away from the game or the fact that Woods is in a different stage of his career, but it seemed that he was more willing to admit how much fun he had playing with two of his closest friends as well as with Thomas’s caddy, Jim “Bones” Mackay.
“It was an unbelievable pairing to have those two great guys and two great loops on the bag,” Woods said. “Bones and Joey [LaCava] go back forever, so it was a lot of fun.”
What’s going well for him?
Schlabach: After all of his surgeries, I think it’s absolutely remarkable that Woods is still averaging more than 300 yards off the tee. Most players in their late 40s aren’t hitting that far, even ones who haven’t faced the medical issues Woods has. In the second round, he had 364-yard drives on the third and 15th holes and a 325-yarder on the first.
In the first two rounds, Woods averaged 301 yards off the tee, which will be close to ranking in the top 25 in the field. McIlroy, one of the longest hitters on tour, averaged 310.5 yards. Thomas averaged 295.8.
Woods’ ball speed was in the 170 mph to 180 mph range on Friday. He said he can no longer push off the ground to create an explosion because of his surgically repaired right leg, foot and ankle. He’s using a lot of core strength, but has to be careful doing that because of his fused back.
“There’s things technically that we have found that work, but if I try and step on it and use the ground, it just doesn’t happen anymore,” Woods said. “But if I step on it and use my core too much, then my back’s not very good. I’ve got to be very careful in how I go about that. But yes, this is what I’ve been doing at home, this is the speed I’ve been hitting it. I don’t have the high one like some of these guys do, like the two guys in my group, they can hit that ball and send it. I don’t have that because of the limitations in my back and my leg.”
Uggetti: His driver is still going very far. Woods is tied for 25th in driving distance this week and has kept up with his playing partners, both of whom hit the ball a long way. As Woods explained after his round Friday, his lower body can no longer push off the ground to get more distance, but by carefully using his core, he can still reach 180 mph ball speed and hit the ball plenty far. It also helps that Riviera is playing such that the ball is getting a good rollout. You can see why Woods wanted to make this his debut tournament.
What’s not working for him?
Schlabach: After a seven-month layoff, you had to figure that Woods’ money clubs — his putter and wedges — would probably be a little rusty. So it wasn’t a surprise that his work around the greens and on them left a lot to be desired. Woods didn’t think his putting shortcomings were the result of technical problems. It was more of him just blocking them and missing. He said they were bad putts. He didn’t hit a lot of fairways (11 of 28), but that’s difficult for anyone to do at Riviera.
Uggetti: Putting. Woods lost nearly two strokes due to his putting on Friday after gaining two strokes Thursday. He said after his round on Friday that he simply just hit bad putts all day long. Nowhere was that more evident than on the sixth green. After having his tee shot roll back to the front of the green, Woods contemplated using a wedge to chip it over the bunker that sits in the middle of the green. He then grabbed his putter and proceeded to put it into the bunker and finish with a bogey.
“I blocked a lot of putts early,” Woods said. “And this is probably the highest score I could have shot today. Probably should have shot probably five or six better than this easily.”
What’s the most realistic outcome for this weekend?
Schlabach: According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it’s the eighth time Woods will make the cut on the number in a tournament since 2015. His best finish in the previous seven instances was a tie for 11th at The Players in 2018′. Woods would never admit it, but the last 36 holes aren’t as much about where he finishes but how he finishes. Even if he isn’t in contention on Sunday, playing this weekend is a great chance for him to test the strength and endurance in his surgically repaired right leg and ankle. He hasn’t played 18 holes in an official event since the Masters in April. This is the kind of test he needs as he continues his comeback.
Uggetti: While Woods remains steadfast that he only tees it up to win, that’s no longer a realistic goal this weekend given he’s 11 shots behind the leader, Max Homa. Shooting under par over the course of his first four rounds this season would be a remarkable accomplishment given the situation, and although I think that will be plenty difficult, it’s an attainable goal. He’s just one over through 36 holes and barring an injury or a withdrawal, he has a shot.