AUGUSTA, Ga. — Look who’s found his way back into contention.
Tiger Woods showed flashes of the player who once owned golf’s major championships, blistering the back nine on his way to a 6-under 66 on Friday that brought out that familiar fist pump and sly grin. He’s just three strokes behind Rory McIlroy in a tie for third at the Masters.
After an up-and-down front nine, Woods was simply trying to get under par before the turn. Then he turned up the heat, making five birdies, including three in a row on Nos. 13-15. The 66 matched Woods’ lowest score of the year, and was his best round at Augusta National since he won in 2005.
“It was nice to get it going today,” he said. “Anytime you shoot 66 in a major, it’s always going to be good. I’m very pleased about that.”
Woods has been in freefall since that infamous car crash 16 months ago. His marriage failed after the revelations of a long and tawdry string of affairs. His golf game has been erratic, at best, as he goes through yet another major swing change.
He hasn’t won since returning to competition at last year’s Masters. He’s dropped to No. 7 in the world rankings, the lowest he’s been since he was No. 13 going into the 1997 Masters, which he won by 12 shots.
And there’s a Kiddie Corps led by McIlroy that shows no fear of the player who once ruled the game.
“It’s good to see these guys out here playing with that much enthusiasm and that much zest for the game,” Woods said. “That generation is going to be a fun one to watch and see how it matures over the next 10, 15 years.”
But he isn’t ready to turn the game over to the youngsters. Not even close.
Woods looked Friday as if the swing changes have finally taken hold, and he said it’s the most comfortable he’s felt since he started working with swing coach Sean Foley at the PGA Championship last year. He finished with nine birdies, none more impressive than his final one on 18.
His drive found the right rough, leaving him with a tough lie 150 yards short of the hole. But he placed an 8-iron almost perfectly, about 12 feet to the right of the hole. He rolled the putt in, giving a long, emphatic fist pump as the ball dropped into the cup and the crowd roared.
“I’m right where I need to be,” Woods said. “I’ve closed the gap after yesterday’s round, and hopefully tomorrow I can piece together another good round, stay patient and plod my way along.”
Woods has seemed to be back on track several times over the last year, only to back right up again. He was third after both the second and third rounds at last year’s Masters, but never made a run Sunday and finished in a tie for fourth. He shot a 5-under 31 on the back nine Saturday at Pebble Beach to get into contention at the U.S. Open, but couldn’t make a putt on the final day and finished tied for fourth.
He wouldn’t see the top 10 again until the HSBC Championship in November.
After shooting a 68 on Friday at Bay Hill last month, he backed up with a 74-72 and finished tied for 24th.
“The whole idea was to peak for this, this event,” Woods said. “We try to peak four times a year, and it was nice to go through the learning curve and some of the changes that Sean and I had to make in the game. It was good and positive, and here we are.”
Woods is the first to caution that there is still a long way to go, and plenty of good players in contention.
But if there is an ideal setting for Woods to make a comeback, it is at Augusta National. He’s won four of his 14 majors here, and the Masters record book is filled with his name. He knows the course as well as anyone and, even with all of his flaws, the fans here are still on his side.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Woods said. “It’s going to be fun.”