By JIM LITKE, Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Don't say he's back.
Or that's he's not.
Tiger Woods could play Augusta National in his sleep, in a daze, in a blizzard or with a ball and chain cuffed at his ankle and still get around in a respectable number of strokes. See where he is at close of light Sunday. Then we'll talk.
A day before the opening round, Woods tweeted, "Feeling ready," except he didn't play as if he was. Not completely, anyway. He sprayed practice shots all over the range, then pulled his first tee shot into a stand of trees on the left, a bad habit that plagued him most of the day. He scrambled from the pine straw off the first fairway, then holed from 8 feet for a one-putt par, another habit that kept the round from tipping over into disarray.
Say this much for Woods: He's rarely boring. At No. 9, he pulled his drive so far to the left that it wound up in the walkway between the ninth and first holes. A kid got to the ball first, as it rolled to a stop, bent over and looked at the logo. Then he pulled his father in the opposite direction just before a crowd of fans surged toward the errant drive and staked out a spot to watch.
The little guy might have been the only person on the grounds who didn't seem much interested. But Woods salvaged par from there and by the end, his seven one-putts offset the six fairways Woods missed with his driver, as well as the two drops he took because of unplayable lies. That left him effectively stuck in neutral, at even-par 72.
"I just felt my way around today, I really grinded, stayed very present. And you know," Woods said, "I know how to play this golf course. I think it's just understanding what I need to do."
He won two weeks ago at Bay Hill — his first real tournament in 30 months — and arrived here saying, "Everything is headed in the right direction at the right time." That suggested the remodeling of his swing under his latest coach, Sean Foley, was nearly complete. Not so fast. Turns out some of the changes Woods employed under his previous coach, Hank Haney, managed to creep back into his game and get in the way Thursday.
"Same old motor patterns," Woods said, referring to his problems off the tee. "Now I'm struggling with it all the way around with all the clubs.
"The Hank backswing," he added a moment later, "with the new downswing."
But in the moment after that, Woods lauded himself for his "commitment to each and every shot, what I was doing, my alignment, my setup, everything was something that I'm excited about."
You could listen to Woods talk all day and not know what to believe. In his recent book, "The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods," Haney tells the story of how Woods often said one thing for public consumption after a round and then called the coach and laid out the things he felt a need to work on. They were rarely the same things.
Two things are not in dispute.
The first is that Woods knows how to play here, no matter which swing, or swings, he's wrestling with. He's won the Masters four times, never finished worse than 22nd as a professional and tied for fourth the last two years, the post-scandal phase of his career. The second is that golf is still a game played mostly between the ears and only Woods knows what's going on in that space. He's also the only one who knows which, if any, of the various personalities he's tried on in public since that fateful spin down the driveway of his Florida mansion in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving, 2009, is the real Woods.
The rest of us are left to try to divine that from the way Woods has played golf. The results have been middling at best, and the inconsistency suggests that just like this latest swing, Woods' psyche is still very much a work in progress. He was at his best when he was one of the most cold-blooded competitors on the planet, and we haven't seen that person since he dusted off Rocco Mediate in a playoff with one good leg to win the 2008 U.S. Open.
No one knows, perhaps not even Woods, whether that guy still exists. Barring a missed cut, all of us could have the chance to find out on the back nine on Sunday, when the kids who've never seen him in that mode and the contemporaries who wonder where that Woods went start throwing off birdies and wait to see how he replies.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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