After the first two rounds of the Cadillac Championship at the TPC Blue Monster at Doral in Miami, Florida, we have the best leaderboard of the year so far.
Perched atop the board is the redoubtable Tiger Woods armed with a two-shot lead and certain knowledge about where to get more:
I didn’t have a very good warm up this morning. Wasn’t feeling very good with my swing, and just had a few keys I had to work through. I didn’t do a very good job the first couple holes. Hit terrible golf shots there. But I played them even par.
I hit a decent shot into the green at 3 and I said, you know what, that’s kind of halfway to where I need to be and I hit that shot on 4 and that was where I need to be, and I kept that all the way through [the rest of the round].
There was a certain symmetry in the fact that the shot that clicked for him was a 4-iron on the 4th. There was no symmetry in the shot however, only explosiveness; hitting a 4-iron on the 236-yard par-3 is preposterous on the face of it. But it was no fluke. The second 4-iron that affirmed what he was doing with his swing came on the 245-yard par-3 13th.
They were two totally different shots and I hit a flat, hard cut at 4 and a soft, up‑in‑the air cut with the 4‑iron at 13. And both of them worked out.
As I said, ridiculous. And on top of that, Steve Stricker helped him with his putting:
It feels very similar, if not almost identical, to where I was at Torrey, my body position, my line, my feel, the way the club is moving and the feels in my hands.
Hey, we get off from time to time, and Stricks knows my stroke, and he saw a few things, and lo and behold, he made a few suggestions. I worked through it, and then next thing you know, I said, hey, this is like Torrey, how I putted out there. I’ve made some putts in the last few days. But he’s still not getting a percentage (smiling).
As for Stricker, he’s T3 with Phil Michelson and 3 shots back, and he has no regrets about the putting lesson:
It’s good to see him putting well and playing well. You know, it’s good for us, it’s good for the game, and it’s always good when he plays well; and unfortunately we are chasing him, so it’s going to be difficult.
And neither does he have any regrets over significantly cutting back on his playing schedule as he announced at the beginning of the year in Maui at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions:
Yeah, I feel good about the decision that I’ve made. This is my third event, and besides taking the six weeks off prior to playing at the Match Play, my breaks are not going to be as — I’ll have two or three weeks, or a week, and I’ll stay probably sharp enough at home, play a little bit with my daughter and hit balls when I can at home in the snow.
But yeah, I’m enjoying it and I can tell in my attitude out here, it’s good, and I think that’s the biggest thing is I’m coming out here rested, refreshed, excited to play and it’s showing in my game, too.
This is indeed a grand experiment in that it tests the conventional wisdom of professional golf that effort must be incessant and extensive. Bruce Lietzke was famous for taking long stretches off and not practicing when he did, becoming a sort of cult hero and well-balanced husband and father in the process. So it can be done.
Graeme McDowell is two strokes back of Tiger at 11-under par and has that twinkle in his eye and gentle smile on his face as he talks about looking forward to playing in the last group with Tiger. He famously beat Tiger in his own Chevron World Challenge and he did it by calmly making two huge putts; one to get into a playoff and the other to win it:
I’ve played with Tiger many times, many stages. I feel like I’ve learned a lot over the years playing with him. Tomorrow is not about winning the golf tournament. Tomorrow is just about maintaining position, maintaining the way I’m playing and trying to give myself a chance come Sunday afternoon.
It doesn’t really matter who I’m playing with tomorrow. You know, Tiger always brings his own interesting little circus inside the ropes. But like I say, I’ve been there many times and you know, always look forward to be playing with him. And he certainly looks like if you can finish one ahead of him this weekend, it looks like you’ll do okay here.
But how exactly will he be able to do that?
I guess, what have I learned, not to be intimidated by him or the circus around him — well, what am I trying to say?
The intimidating thing about playing with him is what goes on inside the ropes, and it isn’t him, that’s kind of what I’m saying. He’s an incredible guy to play with, very sporting, always complimentary, and like I say, I’ve played with him enough now to feel comfortable.
Like I say it’s more the environment that goes on inside and outside the ropes, a little louder, a little busier and that’s really what I’ve learned to understand and control and deal with and kind of get acclimatized to.
But it is also true that in the final analysis, your real opponent is the golf course itself:
But end of the day, you know, it really doesn’t matter who you’re playing with. You’re playing against the golf course. That’s the great thing about this sport. The other guy can’t tackle you. The other guy can’t hit your golf ball. All you can do is just play this great golf course and come the back nine Sunday, we’ll see what happens.
And he goes into this effort in a wonderful state of mind:
I have to say I’m generally feeling quite calm and patient inside. I don’t feel like I’m trying to force the issue too much. I guess I found a little state of mind at Tiger’s event last year where, you know, I felt very, sort of at moments in my career in my past, where I felt very under control and calm emotionally and I’ve found that really the best place for me to be when I’m playing great golf.
For his part, Phil Mickelson may be paired in the next to last group with Steve Stricker, but he has his eye on playing with Tiger on Sunday:
I hope so. I saw Tiger was playing well and I wanted to make a couple birdies to get in the group with him. It seems since 2007 when we played at Deutsche Bank in Boston, I’ve been playing some of my best golf when we get paired together.
I hope that tomorrow that I play a good round and so does he, and we get a chance to get paired together in Sunday’s final round, because he seems to somehow bring out my best golf.
And Phil also has a little motivational boost in his back pocket; he managed to stop by Augusta on the way to Doral to get a little work in, even though the course wasn’t that close to tournament conditions. But that wasn’t the biggest takeaway in any event:
That’s what it does, is it gets me excited. And there’s not much work you’re going to get done six weeks prior to the Masters, because it’s not quite in tournament condition. Although it wasn’t far off.
But seeing the course, playing there, and being on the grounds, having breakfast, having lunch there, overlooking the grounds and just playing there, gets me excited about the game. There’s something very spiritual about playing Augusta if you love the game as much as I do and going there gets me fired up. It also gets me in the frame of mind of getting a sharper picture of the shots that I will have in six weeks.
Indeed, shots he’s been hitting so far this week. Watch out Tiger.