Winds a blessing in disguise for Tiger
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Through six holes of the Chevron World Challenge, Tiger Woods failed to miss a green, made four birdies and lipped out an eagle putt.
There was a sense that perhaps something special was occurring Thursday at Sherwood Country Club, that Woods might go low on a course where he has won four times. With five par-5s and the friendly offseason atmosphere of a made-for-TV tournament, such a scenario loomed.
Then something called the Santa Ana winds materialized. The weather forecast called for such blustery conditions, and they were severe enough that schools were closed in some parts of Southern California. Some 300,000 homes were without power. The PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament near Palm Springs was affected as well.
While such brutal conditions never materialized at the Chevron, the wind still turned a friendly day into a treacherous one.
And yet, this might have turned out to be a good thing for Woods as he attempts to regain the form that saw him win 14 major titles and 71 PGA Tour events. It was far from a benign, easy day. The 18 players competing for a $5 million purse were forced to work hard for it.
It soon became apparent Woods would not be shooting in the low 60s -- and that the 69 he ended up with was pretty impressive on a difficult day.
"It's tough out there," said Woods, host of the tournament that benefits his foundation. "You can look at the scores. No one's really doing much. Once the wind started blowing, maybe 1 or 2 under par is probably about it since it was howling out there."
It was Woods who a day earlier had talked about wind being his nemesis in the early stages of swing changes under coach Sean Foley. He admitted that at a tournament in Dubai in February, a tricky wind cost him strokes because he didn't have the shots in his arsenal to deal with it.
"You get exposed," he said.
Woods almost welcomed the challenge of the impending conditions Thursday, and a fast start served to help him weather the storm. After lipping out a putt for an eagle at the fifth hole to get to 4 under, Woods did not make another birdie until the 13th.
Back-to-back bogeys on the back nine -- including on the par-5 16th -- seemed to take the blustery wind out of him, but he rebounded with a birdie at the 17th, and his 69 left him tied for second with Steve Stricker, three shots back of K.J. Choi, who made just one bogey after birdies on the first five holes.
"I think it's a blessing that the wind was as strong as they forecasted," said Choi, the winner of this year's Players Championship and a bright spot for the International Presidents Cup team in Australia two weeks ago. "If the winds really start to pick up at 40, 50 miles per hour, we can't really play out there. They would have to stop the tournament, so it's a blessing that it wasn't that strong."
And yet it was strong enough to cause plenty of problems.
Only six players in the 18-man field broke par. The first six players seemingly had an advantage, as they had more time on the course when the weather was calm, and yet none of them matched par.
In addition to Choi, Woods and Stricker, the only other players under par were Nick Watney, Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler, all of whom shot 1-under 71. Matt Kuchar, who had gotten to 4 under at one point, and Hunter Mahan shot even-par 72.
"The conditions got very difficult," Stricker said. "The fan turned on and made the club selection pretty tough."
Stricker and Woods played together, and both birdied the first two holes. That was quite the departure from the last time they were paired -- two weeks ago at Royal Melbourne, where they lost their first Presidents Cup alternate-shot match 7 and 6 to Choi and Adam Scott.
But both players improved from that day -- Stricker with a shoulder and neck injury that threatened to keep him out of the Presidents Cup -- as they won the last two points for the United States in singles.
It was Stricker who offered up a putting tip before the final day in Australia that helped Woods, who went on to make six birdies in 15 holes to close out Aaron Baddeley.
That, along with his third-place finish at the Australian Open and a generally upbeat nature about his game, seemed to suggest Woods was heading in the right direction.
"I think he's playing great," Stricker said. "He's striking the ball so solidly. His trajectory on his shots is really good. He got a little unlucky on a couple of irons that he hit. He hit them right where he was looking, either a little short or a little long. It was just tough out there.
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"But he's putting better and hitting it better, driving it better. It looks like he's getting a lot of confidence back again. It looks like the Tiger of old, really, and it's great to see. We need him out there playing and playing well."
Another good test awaits Friday. Woods will be paired in the final group with Choi, and the two are no strangers. They played together all four rounds at the 2010 Masters and were together just two weeks ago at the Presidents Cup.
And Choi has played with Woods enough not to be intimidated. He's had a good stretch of golf lately, which should provide another challenge for Woods.
"I watched him play a couple of holes today, and I was very impressed at the way he was swinging," Choi said. "It almost seemed like watching the old Tiger, back in the day. I think with the form now, he's going to play well, and I think it's very good for the game. I think it's really good to see that he's coming back to his old shape."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.