PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods says it’s way too early to hit the panic button. Then again, it’s too early by his standards to be getting up on a Saturday morning to play a PGA Tour event.
But at least he’s still playing.
Already off to the slowest start of his career, Woods had to scramble on the back nine just to make the cut in the Honda Classic. Woods hit only two greens over his final nine holes. His lone birdie on the back nine was on the 13th hole, when he missed the green with a wedge and then chipped in for birdie. His par on the final hole gave him a 1-under 69 – the first time in six rounds he had broken par at PGA National – and left him 11 shots behind Rory McIlroy.
Woods tees off at 7:38 a.m. Saturday. He should be done before the leaders even show up at the course to eat lunch.
“It’s a grind. There’s no doubt about it,” Woods said.
Golf looks anything but that to McIlroy, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland who has yet to play a 72-hole tournament this season when he didn’t have a chance going into the weekend. McIlroy ran off six birdies in a 10-hole stretch for a 4-under 66.
He was at 11-under 129, one shot ahead of Brendon de Jonge, who had a 64.
Woods began his year at Torrey Pines, where he his eight pro victories included a U.S. Open, and he didn’t make it to Sunday. He failed to make the 54-hole cut (which kicks in when more than 78 players make the cut) and tied for 80th.
Then it was off to Dubai, where he had won twice. He was never a factor and tied for 41st, his worst showing in seven appearances.
“It’s only three events,” Woods said, hiding his annoyance at the question. “So not that many rounds into it.”
Woods has played nine rounds of competition in the last three months. He has broken 70 only twice – a 68 in the first round of Dubai and a 69 on Friday at the Honda Classic. Until this year, he had never started without at least one finish in the top 20.
Woods wasn’t ready to rule out a turnaround even this week.
“I would like to obviously hit it better than I have been, and especially today. I didn’t hit it very good today,” he said. “But again, I fought out a number, which is always a good thing. Somehow would like to put together a good weekend. We’re all bunched in there. Anything can happen this weekend.”
Being 11 shots behind in a 79-man field typically does not constitute one of those “anything can happen” weekends, though stranger things have occurred. Regardless, he looks to be miles away from the real action at the Honda Classic.
And that starts with McIlroy.
Boy Wonder won this tournament two years ago to reach No. 1 in the world for the first time. That was good. As the defending champion, he was so frustrated with his game and the mounting expectations that he walked off the golf course after 26 holes. That was bad.
“This year is obviously a lot different,” McIlroy said. “Got off to a good start. I’m confident. I’m playing well. This is the second straight tournament I’ve opened with a 63. So if I can keep building on these good starts, then hopefully I can start converting.”
He was referring to Dubai, where he started with a 63 and then pressed too hard. As for getting off to a good start, he ostensibly meant his season. This will be the third straight stroke-play event of the year where he is a major presence on the weekend.
Friday was another step in the right direction, despite errant tee shots on the 11th and 12th holes that led to bogeys. His round changed with a tee shot into 6 feet on the 16th hole for a birdie, and then a 12-foot birdie on the 18th to wrap up his front nine and earn back the two shots he had dropped.
After a 45-foot birdie attempt on the second hole rimmed all the way around and out of the cup, Boy Wonder took off. He two-putted the par-5 third. He hit a wedge into 4 feet on the next hole. He rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt down the hill at the par-5 fifth. Then, after a tough par save on the sixth, he sank another 30-foot birdie putt that McIlroy made look routine.
“Watching Rory play is amazing when he’s swinging like this,” Masters champion Adam Scott said.
McIlroy is swinging freely and with confidence. He is starting to walk with a bit of swagger. From tee to green, his game looks solid. And on the green, it looks even better. McIlroy has taken only 49 putts through two rounds.
“That’s probably the lowest putting total after 36 I’ve probably had, maybe in my career,” he said. “So it’s obviously going in the right direction.”