Tiger Woods passes another milestone in his 2018 comeback

Tiger got his putter rolling again and posted his second-best result of 2018 in what was another positive week in this comeback season.

Before we get to Tiger, we have to talk about Frankie. This wouldn’t happen often, but Francesco Molinari was so good and executed his plan so well that it deserves the first praise. Coming over to the USA was a risk for Molinari, who splits time between the PGA Tour and Euro Tour. This is prime Euro Tour season with all the regulars spending the middle of the summer over there playing marquee events leading into The Open.

But Molinari, who has already won the biggest event of the season on that Tour, decided to bail on the French Open and Scottish Open to play two lower level PGA Tour events. The goal was to improve his FedExCup standing so he could play the stateside PGA Tour playoffs in September. First up was the Quicken Loans National before the John Deere Classic in two weeks right before The Open.

The move paid off immediately, as Molinari put on a clinic from tee-to-green the likes of which we rarely see on Tour.

He’s been nails for a few years now on both sides of the Atlantic and that consistency is coming together this year with wins. This is his first PGA Tour win and now he’s at 42 in the FedExCup standings. It’s fun to watch a plan come together like that and while Tiger was a the main draw, Molinari’s golf was impossible not to love as he lapped the field in the way he did Sunday afternoon.

Tiger said he thought he might have a chance if he could shoot 29 or 30 on the back nine but that would have put him nowhere close. The crowd lit up as Tiger rolled in a few putts, but none of it mattered. No run from any player on the course would have mattered.

A 7-under total would have put you in a playoff at this course last year. At the start of the week Tiger said he didn’t see it getting to double digits. Frankie M got to 21-under.

Now on to some Tiger thoughts…

1. Of the players to make the cut, Tiger finished the week with the 7th-best strokes gained putting mark. That’s an enormous improvement. There were still issues with some of the short ones and because this is Tiger, we tend to overreact to every miss and make. So two misses in a row from inside 10 feet can give one the impression he’s had a bad day with the putter but that just wasn’t the case this week. He was at +1.19 SG putting for the week and the new mallet putter probably had something to do with it.

2. Woods said after the round that even his misses had a “go in” look, that he now he feels confident with the putter and is once again “seeing his lines.” Tiger is one of the best putters of all time, but that’s a skill that tends to diminish with age in a way that’s not as conspicuous as other parts of the time. It’s also a part of the game that can come back faster than anything else. He’s saying that whatever happened post Wells Fargo could not last for the rest of the year. This week was a dramatic improvement and we got his second best result of the year, a T4 finish. I also won’t overreact to the good and say the mallet has cured everything and now this is sustainable. Let’s see it for a few more events.

3. Tiger’s back to playing at an elite level on the most competitive tour in the world. This is fact and this is progress. His ballstriking and birdie rate are at a level that should be yielding repeated mid-60s rounds and regular contention.

I’ve been easier on him this year after five or six years of writing mostly Tiger skepticism. I think what he’s doing — just being out here and being competitive — is still impressive, even if people are starting to get antsy about a win. He may never clean up the sloppiness in between, but it’s a good bet that, for at least one week, he will. And then he will win again.

4. Tiger still has an aggression that is exhilarating to watch. When you have 14 majors, 79 PGA Tour wins, and are the all-time money leader, you’re not exactly sweating out the FedExCup points like most players in the field. He’ll go at as many flags as anyone, and here’s where I lean on that quote from earlier this year at Riviera when he said that the “hallmark of his career” was hitting it pin-high. I watched several groups come through the 15th hole on Sunday and few wanted to attack a back pin. It would be a rough downhill putt or a brutal short side chip if you went long. Tiger, standing in the fairway, threw it all the way to the back on the fly, stopping it exactly pin-high and making the putt. Watching him have full distance control with his ballstriking is as fun as anything in the game and I’m so glad that’s back.

5. Earlier in the year, Tiger said he just wanted to work on getting his “playing feels” and get back to playing tournament golf in consecutive days and then four days in a row. We’re six months in, and this week was probably the most arduous test of that part of his return. The heat and humidity were oppressive and Avenel is not a fun walk, at all. This is not some flat TPC track on farmland, but it’s full of steep drops and climbs throughout both nines. He characterized this as a “little milestone.”

“This week is just how fit am I? I don’t have a problem with my strength and my endurance, it’s just a matter of keeping focus out here in this heat.”

He did not look entirely like he wanted to be there on the range on Sunday soaked in sweat with a full round ahead of him. But then he went out and posted a 66, top 5, and closed with three huge putts in his final four holes. I have no idea if his back could crumble at any moment, but he does seem all the way back in terms of fitness and focus playing on a rough walk in some testy conditions.

6. This weekend was a reminder of how different and diverse a gallery comes out to watch Tiger playing this DC event. I’m not on Tour every week, but I’ve been to enough tournaments to see and know this was a much more diverse crowd all four days chasing the Cat through that heat and up and over those steep Potomac hills. It was very cool to watch from outside the ropes. It’s another reason why losing this event and this market is a bad look for the Tour and all involved.

PGA: The National - Third Round
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports
A crowd runs down the hill at the 10th hole to get in a good spot to see the Cat.

7. Tiger spent the weekend playing with two lesser-known, perhaps totally unknown, players in Joel Dahmen and Bronson Burgoon. He spoke at the start of the week on how he doesn’t know many of the younger players on Tour now and has to figure out names on the fly, as opposed to knowing everyone, even on the fringes, of his generation. Both Dahmen and Burgoon raved about playing with Tiger, said he was easygoing and a great playing partner. The old Tiger may not have been as friendly.

After the round, I was standing around scoring when Burgoon asked Tiger for a photo together. It was a cool moment you never see between players that are technically “colleagues.” It reiterated how Tiger, while a pro golfer like the other guy, is also an icon and an inspiration for that next generation. Burgoon then realllllly pushed it to the limit as a host of friends also jumped in to take pics with TW before he went to talk to the press.

8. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational somehow became a big topic of conversation this week. Tiger has stated that he’d like to get into the top 50 in the world rankings and earn a spot back into that field. He’s won there eight times and the event is moving to Memphis, home of Tour sugar mama FedEx, next year. This QL National, and The Open, are going to be his only starts and chances to jump up the rankings before that event. Tiger was adamant that, despite his desire to get back to Firestone, he’s not adding tournaments to try and do it.

Here’s a solution that doesn’t have to be complicated unless you really want to make it complicated: The WGCs are a modern-era contrivance. They took off in the Tiger era mostly because he patronized them. It wouldn’t be breaking some sacred rule to give him a special exemption into Firestone so he can play it one last time before that event chases the money to Memphis.

Read more at SB Nation.

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