MELBOURNE: Tiger Woods is in the same spot Down Under as he’s been everywhere else in the world—trying to catch up to the leaders and on the verge of becoming an also-ran.
Right when it looked as though Woods was poised to give himself a chance at winning for the first time all year, he struggled in blustery conditions Friday at the Australian Masters and wound up with a 1-over 72.
That put him nine shots behind Adam Bland, who is leaving Sunday night for the second stage of Q-school on the PGA Tour. Bland played in the same side of the draw as Woods, in 20 mph wind that blew sand out of the bunkers, and finished strong for a 4-under 67.
Bland was at 10-under 132 and had a two-shot lead over Andre Stolz, who also had a 67. No one else was within three shots of them, while Sergio Garcia had the best round of the day—also in a strong wind—and his best score of the year with a 65 to get within six shots.
The Australian Masters is the final title defense of the year for Woods, and he hasn’t come close in any of the others. His best finish in a title defense was a tie for 15th at the BMW Championship in Chicago.
Woods again played two perfect shots on the par-5 17th for a two-putt birdie, and again took himself out of an easy birdie with a poor tee shot on the par-5 18th. This one was on a dirt path, and Woods’ attempt to hook it around a tea tree didn’t work out. It sailed toward a corporate box, and he had to settle for par.
He was at 1-under 141 and tied for 16th with Camilo Villegas (70).
“It was frustrating, because I hit the ball well pretty much off the tee, and wasn’t quite as sharp with the irons,” Woods said.
Just like on Thursday, when he opened with a 69, Woods didn’t make a putt longer than 8 feet. The problem Friday was that most of those putts were for par.
Bland, a left-hander from Australia, played the Nationwide Tour this year and didn’t come close to finishing in the top 25 to earn his PGA Tour card. Instead, he leaves for California after the week for the second stage of Q-school, and the only reason he didn’t go over early to inspect the courses was he thought he might find some confidence at Victoria.
So far, he has.
“I haven’t been playing well, so I thought I would use this event to try and get a little bit of confidence, and hopefully build some game, something I can go over there with, that can get me through those two stages,” Bland said.
Woods is looking for confidence, too, and not finding it.
This was the strongest wind he has faced since the Ryder Cup on Friday morning, and that lasted only an hour when the opening session was halted because of wet conditions.
Woods had a hard time trusting his new move under coach Sean Foley, trying instead to simply work the ball with the wind and get by. But he made careless bogeys, either though his iron play or short game, and kept falling further behind.
Asked about the progress with his swing change, Woods said, “It was tougher today.”
“When the wind blows this hard, just like anybody I tend to revert back to some of the old stuff,” he said. “I struggled with that today. I tried to be as committed as I possibly could. It was a little more difficult than I thought it should have been, but I got through it.”
The rain began falling soon after Woods hooked his final tee shot, and more — much more — is expected.
The forecast was for heavy rain to start falling overnight and throughout much of the third round, this after Melbourne already has gone through an unusually wet time of the year.
That could soften Victoria, which has been playing so firm that players are aiming at spots on the greens, and sometimes the fairway, to try to get the ball close to the hole.
“It will be a lot more target golf,” Bland said.
Stuart Appleby, not among the five players the Australian Masters promoted, had a 69 and was in the group at 2-under 140. Geoff Ogilvy, who has been home in Australia for the last six weeks and is not going back to America until he defends his title in Hawaii, birdied the last two holes for a 70 that brought him back to even par.
Saturday is shaping up as a big one for Woods. With only 15 players in front of him, he is still in the game. Even so, it continues a troubling pattern for a former No. 1 player in search of his first win in a year.
When he failed to birdie the 18th from about 15 feet above the hole—it stayed a foot left of the cup the whole way—it marked the seventh time in 14 tournaments this year that Woods went into the weekend at least nine shots behind.
The closest he has been to the lead through 36 holes was at the Masters— two shots—in his return to golf, which now seems like a lot longer than seven months ago.