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Tiger puts best foot forward, regains form just in time

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PARAMUS, N.J. -- A fan with a Jersey accent thicker than the green pond water at the Meadowlands chimed in on the 18th hole with his pithy analysis of the Tiger Woods situation.

Looks like his unsolicited opinion, offered aloud to an equally portly dude waddling nearby in a Yankees cap, was about as clear as swamp water, too.

Woods was staring down a 7-footer for birdie on the last hole at Ridgewood Country Club, a putt that he would convert for a season-best 65, and the big guy offered his peanut-gallery view on the performance.

"His head's back in the game," the guy said.

Oh, if it were only that simple.

It's far too early to tell whether Woods' painfully public divorce earlier in the week will prove to be cathartic or a hindrance, but that's not the only transitioning he's making relating to his game -- which at The Barclays finally, mercifully, looked somewhat familiar, circa 2000-2009.

Without any shred of doubt, Woods played his best round of the season Thursday to claim the overnight lead on the PGA Tour for the first time in 11 months. It wasn't even a question of whether it surpassed his third-round 66 in the U.S. Open, which was mostly concocted over nine strong holes.

"Absolutely," Woods said.

Less declarative and definitive was why it all happened Thursday.

It was quickly suggested that Woods had a huge weight removed from his shoulders, not to mention a comparably large load excised from his bank account, after ending his six-year marriage Monday. There has definitely been a nexus between his professional and psychological states, he said, but suggesting that his emancipation proclamation fueled his best performance in nearly a year felt like a reach.

"I can't really say that's the case," Woods said. "As far as golf-wise, it was nice to put it together."

The Barclays -- First Round
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He had all the pieces assembled, right from the start. And we do mean start -- Woods got up at 3:50 a.m. and hit the first ball of the tournament off the No. 1 tee at 7:10 a.m., a 3-wood that sailed right down Broadway.

Two hours into the round, the beat guys who have watched Woods play forgettably, if not regrettably, since April were wondering aloud: Where had this performance been all season?

The world No. 1 hit all but three greens, missing one of them by a few inches. He missed one fairway, by about 3 yards. He made 16 of 17 putts from inside 10 feet, a range that has been letting the air out of his competitive balloon all season. With no groups stationed in front of his threesome, he played as fast as he wanted.

After months of mediocrity, even the trademark smash-and-spin move off the tee, where he theatrically twirls the club on the follow through when he hits it flush, was back, over and over. It was a long time coming. After all, his life and golf shots had generally been careening out of control since, what, Thanksgiving?

"It feels good to be able to control my ball out there," Woods said, likening his day to the nine stellar holes he played at Pebble Beach. "I hit it all day like that. It feels good to have what I am working on feel more natural."

Nobody can possibly handicap his mental state at the moment, or how much it contributed to his unforgettably bad season. He brought all of it on himself and was forced to endure it. Facts are facts.

But his very recent dalliances with a new swing technique are something concrete that Tiger-philes can sink our teeth into.

Tiger Woods' success off the tee leads to more good things in the first round. (AP)  
Tiger Woods' success off the tee leads to more good things in the first round. (AP)  
His coach of the past six years, Hank Haney, put Woods on waivers after the Players Championship in May. Three weeks ago, Woods asked Orlando-based swing coach Sean Foley, a promising Canadian instructor with a stable of strong players, including Sean O'Hair, Justin Rose and Hunter Mahan, to take a gander at his swing during the PGA Championship.

After working together at Whistling Straits and getting a primer in the Foley philosophy, they worked together twice on the driving range last week at Woods' home course in Orlando, where Foley began stripping down Woods' swing to its rudiments.

Humorously, it required Woods to strip down some himself.

Foley had Woods remove his shoes and socks and hit balls barefoot. As crazy as it sounds, Foley says he has pupils do it all the time, because anything in the swing that's herky-jerky or violent, or if the firing sequence is out of whack, can make a guy slip and slide all over the range.

"Or even fall on his butt," Foley said Thursday from Orlando, where he was working with Parker McLachlin, another tour player.

Woods had fallen and couldn't get up. All of a sudden, in the first round on a course he had never seen before Wednesday's pro-am round, he began hitting the ball like his familiar self.

In case you hadn't seen the myriad slo-mo replays, Woods has been diving into the ball, dipping his head at impact or over-swinging for most of the season. The crux of Foley's initial tweaks were pretty obvious as Woods played in the first round and painstakingly practiced his swing over and over before each shot. Foley is trying to keep Woods from moving his head off the ball at impact.

Woods hasn't yet committed to Foley's swing theories in full-bore fashion, because he would have to tear up his swing for the fourth time as a pro -- and it could take a year to see positive results, based on his past overhauls with Butch Harmon and Haney. Right now, they are taking baby steps.

Since some folks wanted to draw a convenient connection between the divorce and his perked-up play, in romance parlance, he and Foley have barely gotten to first base and have struck no formal client-pupil relationship. But on Thursday, Woods looked better than he had since the fall of '09.

"All the great ones, Hogan, Snead, all of them, keep their head pretty still," Foley said. "Barefoot, you have no stability, so you collect and store the speed and have to use it in proper balance."

Be fun to see how Nike spins this one.

Woods hadn't led a PGA Tour event since the second round of the Tour Championship last September. He hadn't posted a lower number since the 62 he shot 50 weeks ago at the BMW Championship, where he recorded his last U.S. victory.

So, while it might sound simple to claim that being a born-again bachelor may have fueled the vintage scorecard flashback, it's more likely that goin' barefoot like Ty Webb in Caddyshack was as responsible for Thursday's months-overdue round as anything.

The relief in Woods' voice was evident from a mile away.

"It's exciting to hit the ball flush like this again," he said. "It's something I've been missing all year. It felt good to hit the ball and shape it both ways and really hit it through the wind. I've hit so many shots this year that haven't been hit flush enough to get through the wind. But today I was doing it all day."

Maybe the results marked the winds of change. At this point, after all that has transpired, what prompted it probably doesn't matter.

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