Tiger Woods finished his first round at Doral with a 6-under-par 66 on an afternoon imported from golf heaven. He would not be tied for the lead without the prescient putting advice of Steve Stricker, who happens to be one of his opponents in the 65-man field of the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
Stricker finished one stroke behind Woods and four others on Thursday at the Trump Doral Golf Club and Resort. If Stricker had not spent an hour of his own time coaching Woods on Wednesday, perhaps Woods would not have made nine birdies and Stricker would be the leader.
Glad to oblige, Stricker said.
Collaborative camaraderie is one of the peculiarities of golf, a sport in which athletes are trying to subdue 18 holes more than any human foe. That’s why Doral’s famous course is called the Blue Monster.
This isn’t cage fighting. This is a gentleman’s game.
Sportsmanship is not dead. Plenty of athletes appreciate and cultivate each other’s skill. See the example of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, NBA Finals foils, meeting for one-on-one workouts in the offseason.
Still, it was remarkable to ponder what Stricker did for Woods. The goodwill gesture could cost him places and a chunk of the $8.75 million purse.
Try to picture Serena Williams saying to Maria Sharapova during a Wimbledon warm-up: “Hey, GF, I noticed your toss is 20 degrees too far to the right. May I suggest you try a little adjustment?”
Sharapova complies, smokes an ace.
Williams, doing a double-take: “You go, Maria! Ram it down my throat!”
Sharapova smiles, approaches the net. The two exchange air kisses: “Thanks, Serena. You are a peach. Don’t ever change!”
The reconstruction of Woods’ game is a work in progress three years after his personal life and pro career blew up in the wake of serial philandering revelations. Wednesday’s uneven round was a snapshot of his status.
“All of these things have solidified because it took time,” he said. “From my old swing to now, it’s a pretty drastic change.”
Woods sought Stricker’s input on his putting stance the evening before the tournament began.
“Whatever he says, I’m going to do,” Woods said. “He’s one of the best putters who has ever lived.”
Stricker critiqued Woods’ posture and grip position.
“So then I felt comfortable, like I did at Torrey, and I started rolling it like I did then,” Woods said, referring to his January victory at Torrey Pines. “He can see what’s off a little bit, because he knows my stroke so well. He gave me a couple things to think about and, lo and behold, I started feeling like I did at Torrey.
“I think I’m going to have a contract with him. I’ll bring him out on his off weeks. Friends help each other, and Steve and I have been friends for a long time.”
Such sharing is hard to imagine between, say, boxers Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao: “Pac Man, after the weigh-in, when we’re done with that stare-down nonsense, let’s have a sparring session. You’re not sticking your jab the way you usually do. I can relate. I’d love to help.”
Woods was wearing a Johnny Cash man-in-black outfit, but a few smiles broke through the severe look. Stricker was happy that Woods “seems happier, and his personal life is in a better place and his game is starting to turn for him.”
Stricker seemed to take as much satisfaction from Woods’ successful round as Woods.
“Tiger was talking about how a couple putts were bothering him, and I always hate to interject, but he was open to it,” Stricker said. “When I left him [Wednesday] night he was really excited. You never know, you could hurt the guy, giving him a tip or two, or you could help him out.”
Stricker was simply paying it forward. He recalled one time at Doral when his driver shots were a mess. He finished a round with playing partner Jack Nicklaus and “he’s like, ‘I’ll meet you on the range,’ ” Stricker said. “I had made the cut and he hadn’t. He just took time to help me figure some things out.
“Although we are competitors, we are friends. And you like to see your friend do well, and sometimes you need another pair of eyes.”
Without Ralph Boston’s selfless takeoff tip to Bob Beamon at the Mexico City Olympics, Beamon would have fouled out of the long jump instead of setting the world record. Likewise, Luz Long helped rival Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.
At Doral, Phil Mickelson, tied for second at 67, talked about how pleasant it was to spend four hours playing against Stricker and Bubba Watson, chatting about their kids, admiring the beautiful weather, chuckling after his unorthodox shot from the cart path. Even Stricker’s wife Nicki, who was his caddie, was integral to the competition.
“She’s one of our favorite wives,” Mickelson said. In what sport other than golf do you hear that?
Kevin Garnett to Carmelo Anthony, while elbow-locked under the basket: “Melo, your spouse is one of my favorites. Want to have beers after the game? We can exchange rebounding tips.”