The 18th green was empty, a group in the fairway just playing their approach shots. The roar came out of nowhere, not from somewhere else on the course, but from right there in the stands around 18, where the fans in the expensive seats could watch Tiger Woods drain an eagle putt on television.
The Tiger Roar is a unique sound. No other golfer provokes that kind of primal noise, especially not from three holes away, where that eagle on the 15th moved Woods into a tie for the lead Friday at the Wyndham Championship.
This Friday afternoon felt like years ago, when golf was bifurcated into Tiger Woods and Everyone Else, when his tour victories were practically assumed. For one hot, steamy afternoon, Woods dazzled a gargantuan gallery with hint after hint his game might have turned a corner. And after going into the weekend at 11-under par, he has two more days to prove it.
He’s still the biggest draw in golf, even after the scandals and injuries and swing changes that had, until this week, left him some sort of pathetic, erratic imitation of his former self. But when he’s playing like this, when he’s hitting low, stinging 2-irons off the tee that sizzle through the air not far above the heads of awe-struck spectators, the entire course seems to tilt in his direction.
“It’s nice to be able to chase that 2-iron again,” Woods said. “It feels like the old days to be able to hit that shot.”
It’s too soon, after two impressive rounds, to say the old days are back. Maybe this is the beginning of a comeback, the point where we’ll look back some years hence and say, “It started there, at Sedgefield.” Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Woods himself acknowledged a few of the good bounces he had not been getting lately. But he also said he’s feeling so good he wished he could hit driver more often off the tee, a statement underlining his growing confidence in his play.
“Was I prepared for it to take this long? No,” Woods said. “I didn’t realize the back surgery was going to take that much of a toll on me. I’ve had knee procedures and come back pretty quickly. This one was a little bit different. So you have that and you have a swing change, that’s a tough combo.”
As Woods walked up the hill on the 17th, both sides of the fairway lined with fans standing five, six, seven deep along the ropes, a crowd so thick it disappeared under the trees like mulch, Woods’ name atop the leaderboard next to the green, Wyndham tournament director Mark Brazil stood quietly to the side.
This is the kind of thing tournament directors dream about after a hearty meal. Rarely does it come to fruition like this: The absolute best-case scenario when Woods decided, after missing the cut at the PGA Championship, to make his first appearance at the tournament. It’s one thing for Woods to show up. It’s another for him to contend on the weekend.
Woods has clearly enjoyed his newly extended visit to Greensboro, raving about the “small-town atmosphere” and the passion of the galleries. Asked whether he’d commit to coming back, he said he was just worried about the weekend. He and Brazil have that in common: After selling all 30,000 tickets Friday, the Wyndham will make a few thousand more available Saturday. If the course isn’t too crowded, they might sell even more Sunday.
If Woods is ever going to be the best in the game again, he’ll have to be the best for one weekend, one tournament. So far, he’s been the best for 36 holes, or at least tied for it with Tom Hoge, a player Woods readily admitted he had no idea existed. They’ll play together Saturday, an unknown and the player who still hopes to be the best again, and is finally showing signs it might not be impossible.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947