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Saturday, March 1, 2014
Updated: March 3, 12:54 PM ET
Tide changes quickly for Tiger Woods

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Game in chaos. Walking off courses. Public apologies. Reputation compromised.

Tiger Woods? No, Rory McIlroy, who seems to have figured out how to be, well, Rory McIlroy again. Because honestly, nobody knows who that was impersonating him in 2013.

Same goes for Woods this season. Missed fairways. Missed putts. Missed 54-hole cuts.

You've heard the early-2014 chatter: Woods is a golf wreck. His game needs triage. Win a major? Woods will be lucky to contend in a minor.

And so it goes.

The chatter is ridiculous, of course. It was ridiculous when he was shooting 79 and finishing T-80 at Torrey Pines in January. It was ridiculous when he was finishing 41st at the Dubai Desert Classic in February. It was ridiculous after he limbo danced under the cut line here at the Honda Classic.

Woods shot a 5-under-par 65 on Saturday to move from scoreboard obscurity to respectability. He's back!

Actually, no, he's not. Because he was never gone.

The dumbest thing you can do when discussing Woods is declare his game in decline. Woods leads the world in proving those people wrong.

A 65 at PGA National on the first day of March means something, and it means nothing. It means that Woods hasn't forgotten how to go low when the early morning conditions offer the occasional opening. It means he won't have the second earliest tee time again, as he was Saturday. It means he sank a few putts, played the par-3s well and flushed more than a few shots.

"I didn't feel like I had much of a swing [Friday], but today I hit the ball really solid, which was nice," said Woods, channeling his inner Carl Spackler.

But is it a season changer? A year from now, will we look back at Round 3 of the Honda Classic and say that was Woods' "A-ha!" moment? Of course not. It was one round, one 65.

"Today was a positive day," he said.

Exactly.

Don't judge Woods by what happened here Saturday. Or by what happened at Torrey. Or Dubai. His peers don't.

"He's played what, a couple of tournaments?" said his playing partner Luke Guthrie. "I've already played in six or seven, and if I struggle for a few weeks, nobody notices. I wouldn't read too much into how he's started.

"When I heard that stuff, I kind of chuckled. One round, one shot doesn't define anybody."

Guthrie had never been paired with Woods before. "Obviously the No. 1 player in the world, and maybe going to be the best ever," Guthrie said. "Learned some stuff, and tried to beat him."

He came close. They shot matching scores.

"I'm sure if you asked him, he didn't hit it his absolute best today -- and he shoots 65," Guthrie said.

This is Woods' third tournament of the season. Anyone who thought he was going to start the year box cutter-sharp hasn't been paying attention. He's been hanging out with his two kids. With his girlfriend Lindsey Vonn. Golf had to sit in the back seat.

He's also 38 with a history of surgeries and a sometimes dodgy back. Allowances have to be made.

Woods is pacing himself. Smart move. He has about five weeks between now and the Masters. That's when you can start judging his game again. Not now. Not here.

Nobody's rounds, nobody's anything, are dissected more than Woods'. It's why the bleachers framing most of the par-3 17th hole were filled with spectators at 10:46 a.m. ET on Saturday. It's why there were fans lined eight to nine deep at the 18th green. It's why there was the usual collection of reporters and camera crews waiting for Woods when he walked out of the scorer's trailer.

Nothing personal, but that doesn't happen for Daniel Summerhays.

Woods is five-plus years removed from his last major win, nine years from his last Masters victory. Amazing.

Equally amazing is when people decide the world's No. 1 is cooked because of what happened in his first two tournaments of the year. He stunk it up, but it wasn't fatal.

McIlroy was talking about it the other day, about that feeling of helplessness when your game takes an unscheduled sabbatical. Yet, guess who's in position to win at Honda?

Things change. Quickly. Woods knows it better than anyone.

"I've had situations where it just seems like no matter what you do, you play [and] nothing really goes your way," Woods said. "You can't get the feel of your swing, can't get the putter going, short game -- just it's one thing after another. And it's like. . . week after week after week, round after round after round like that. And next thing you know, [a] couple months and half the season has gone by."

Woods, who trails McIlroy by seven shots, will need a medium-sized golf miracle to win Sunday. But that's OK. What really matters is what happens in Augusta, Ga., beginning April 10. The rest is chatter.

"It's going to turn around," Woods said.

It has for McIlroy. It will for Woods.

And not because of a 65.