NORTON — It is the question that trails Tiger Woods at every turn like the teeming galleries that crane for a glimpse of one of the world’s most iconic athletes. Is Tiger back?
Every swing, every round he plays feels like a referendum on whether Woods is capable of replicating the dominance he displayed prior to injury and infidelity grabbing the wheel of his career and veering it off course. If you based the answer solely on the first round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, it’s yes.
Golf doesn’t have throwback jerseys, but if it did Woods would have donned one Friday at TPC Boston. It was vintage Tiger. The wind was rustling at his back, cameras were clicking in staccato fashion like a photographical firing squad, and Woods was planting his flag atop the leaderboard with a string of brilliant play.
Woods, who teed off from the 10th hole at 8:40 a.m., strung together six consecutive birdies between the par-5 18th and the par-4 fifth to propel himself to a 7-under-par 64 and a fleeting lead. He ended the day in a three-way tie for third after 21-year-old South Korean Seung-Yul Noh upstaged him with four birdies on the final six holes to card a 9-under 62, and Chris Kirk shot a 63.
It was a classic display of Woodsian excellence, marking the first time Woods had played six consecutive holes under par since the second round of the Tour Championship in 2007.
Woods was at 2 under when he jump-started his round on the reconfigured 18th, hitting a 6-iron dead center to within 42 feet, then narrowly leaving short an uphill eagle putt to set up a tap-in for birdie. Woods capped a nostalgic half-dozen holes by nearly holing a wedge from 157 yards on the fifth. He settled for the final birdie of his round to reach 8 under.
Tiger closed with his lone bogey on the ninth hole, muttering expletives under his breath.
He was much more pleased minutes later.
“I played really well today,” said Woods, who didn’t play TPC Boston last year during an injury-plagued season. “I hit a lot of good shots and on top of that I putted well at the same time. It was a nice little combination.”
But this being Tiger, the questions weren’t just about his round. That’s rudimentary stuff. They were aimed at why Woods can’t summon this type of play at will, like he used to.
The toughest lie Woods faces is trying to play out of the shadow of his own greatness. He is a Tiger chasing his own tale.
By the standards of any other player, Woods would be having a banner year. He is the only three-time winner on tour this season. He came to the Deutsche Bank atop the money list. He started the day leading in scoring average (69.02).
But of course Woods isn’t compared with other golfers. He is compared with the invincible and indomitable ghost of his pinnacle, the red-shirt-clad wrecking ball who put up red numbers with regularity, won 14 majors in 12 years, and dominated his sport for a sustained period like only a few have ever dominated any sport.
So, Woods had to explain how he went from a final-round 76 last Sunday at The Barclays to his birdie binge Friday.
“Well, one, I wasn’t playing that bad. That’s the thing that people don’t really realize,” said Woods. “Saturday, I had four three-putts. I would have been right there. And then Sunday, I was battling back and forth early and finally just kind of lost it at the end. But I was just hanging in there that round. It wasn’t like I was hitting a lot of awful shots.
“Today was about the same as I have been playing pretty much all summer, just go out there and playing pretty consistent, nothing really — it was just a nice, solid round.”
Woods wanted to say that we’re so busy looking for the old Tiger we haven’t noticed this Tiger is pretty good, too.
It wasn’t long ago people predicted Woods would never win again after the adultery scandal that cost him his marriage, his endorsements, and his image. They said Woods’s body was breaking down and his spirit was broken.
Here he is still among the best golfers in the world, and it’s not enough.
In his heart, Woods must know that the only way he can silence the “Is he back?” inquiries is to win a major. That didn’t happen this year, but it wasn’t for lack of opportunities.
The same psychological effect other golfers felt while trying to catch Woods appears to be dogging Woods as he tries to chase down Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles. It’s a mental bunker that’s hard to carry.
Woods failed to break par in the final round of a major this year, despite being tied for the 36-hole lead at both the US Open and the PGA Championship and being in contention at the British Open.
That stands out more than his three tour victories in 2012. So, he will have to continue to field the questions, both subtle and overt, about why he’s not the Tiger of Old.
The reality is that nobody is the Tiger of Old, and we may never see such transcendent play again. There is no New Tiger, either (Rory McIlroy isn’t even Kobe to Tiger’s Jordan yet).
But days like Friday, when Woods’s game spoke for itself, are the best response for the question “Is Tiger back?”