Tiger Woods stays sharp tee to green at Quicken Loans National pro-am

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Tiger Woods wanted to give Joe LaCava a break.

There was rain in the forecast for his 7 a.m. Wednesday pro-am tee time at TPC Potomac, and when there’s rain in the forecast a good caddie loads up the bag with an umbrella, rain suit, etc. All the standard precipitation defense mechanisms.

Pro golf bags aren’t light to begin with and the extra weight means a tougher loop for caddies. So when agent Mark Steinberg told Woods on the 10th tee that the forecast had changed and there wouldn’t be any rain, he told LaCava to take a load off and ditch the rain gear.

LaCava protested at first and said he was fine but ultimately gave up the umbrella.

Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the things that weigh us down.

Woods finally decided to stop fighting through back pain a year ago and underwent a spinal fusion with no idea if he’d be able to play professional golf after. Now he’s one of the best statistical ballstrikers on Tour again at age 42 and pacing up steep, wet hills with ease this week at the Quicken Loans National, where he’s one of two legitimate favorites along with Rickie Fowler.

“These are things I didn’t know I could do, and all of a sudden I’m doing it,” Woods said. “I’m competing, I’m playing and I’m having just a great time doing it.”

Woods played in a group Wednesday including former NBA super agent David Falk, who used to count Michael Jordan as a client, and breezed through a difficult course in about 2-under 68.

He hit 9 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens. Off the tee, he hit seven drivers, three 3-woods and four 2-irons. The big miss off the tee is becoming increasingly scarce these day and that’s huge at this course, where the rough was so thick last year it almost resembled a U.S. Open setup.

“Gotta drive it good,” LaCava said. “If you drive it good, I think you can score, but if you don’t drive it good you’re gonna have issues. It’s gonna be tough getting out of the rough. Fortunately the greens are still pretty soft, can still probably get a lot of tough shots up and down, but if they ever get firm and fast it’s gonna be a test if you don’t drive it in the fairway.”

Woods was just off the fairway on the opening hole but stuck his approach to about three feet for an easy tap-in birdie. That was one of several highlights with the irons Wednesday, the clubs Woods has been most effective with all season.

He missed the fairway left with a 3-wood at the par-4 11th, the most difficult hole on Tour all of last season with a 4.521 scoring average. He was in the thick stuff and way below the green and somehow managed to reach it from there, finishing with a two-putt par.

Woods’ best shot of the day came at the 190-yard, par-3 17th, where his approach settled about a foot away from the cup for a tap-in birdie.

Everything was there, but putting is the hardest thing to judge in a pro-am round and it’s the biggest question for Woods ahead of his 1:20 p.m. Eastern Thursday tee time alongside Bill Haas and Marc Leishman.

He continued to use the new mallet putter he tried out for nine holes Tuesday and spoke in exhaustive detail about the TaylorMade Ardmore 3 model. He said he was still unsure if he’ll use it in competition this week, but he’s intrigued and clearly considering a drastic change.

All the other pieces of his game have fallen into place, and he’s up against a small field without a single player in the top 15 of the FedEx Cup Standings. Woods should absolutely contend given what we’ve seen this season.

The only thing left to do is pick a putter and deal with the weight of his own expectations.

“I’m pretty excited the way I’ve hit the golf ball,” Woods said. “I’ve done some things that I haven’t done in over a decade, and so to be able to hit the golf ball as well as I have hit it, if I have the same putting stroke I had earlier in the year with the ball-striking I’ve had, that would be where I want to get to. Just got to put both those things together at the same time.”

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