Beware the bunkers at Bay Hill.
That was the takeaway from Tiger Woods’ practice nine late Tuesday afternoon at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational, where Woods took everyone by surprise when he and caddie Steve Williams, the latter at the wheel of a white Mercedes Benz, pulled into the parking lot shortly before 4 p.m. and made a beeline for the 10th tee.
Woods was joined by Arjun Atwal, a frequent practice round partner and Windermere, Fla., neighbor; Atwal’s coach, Dale Lynch; and Rick Nichols, the Nike tour rep who handles Tiger’s equipment needs. The man charged with fixing what ails Woods’ swing, Sean Foley, caught up with the group at the 11th green, his ever-present camcorder slung over his shoulder.
Woods typically likes to begin practice rounds at the crack of dawn. Fewer spectators, fewer media. Even with the uncharacteristically late start Tuesday, he succeeded in flying under the radar Tuesday, his arrival noticed only by a couple of reporters and no more than 40 spectators. Woods walked off the 10th tee trailed by a three-man security detail, but it wasn’t until he reached the 11th green that a PGA Tour official appeared and asked if everything was OK.
Woods got his first taste of Bay Hill’s renovated bunkers when he dropped a couple of balls into one alongside the 11th green, where he left his first attempt in the sand. “These balls will bury in a heartbeat,” he warned Atwal. “Even if they land in the middle, they’re gonna bury.”
Foley got into the act on the 12th tee, where he pronounced Woods’ drive, “Beautiful, dude.” Foley asked Tiger to go through his swing rehearsal again so he could tape it; when they reviewed the clip, Woods quipped “That’s Hunter’s body position” – referring to Foley pupil Hunter Mahan.
As Woods strolled down the 13th fairway, he summoned Major Dan Rooney from the small gallery. Rooney, an Oklahoma Air National Guard fighter pilot, is the founder of Patriot Golf Day, which raises money to fund scholarships for the children of soldiers killed in war. Woods has a genuine fascination with the military. Between shots, he did much more listening than talking as Rooney, also a former mini-tour player, provided an animated update on the work of his Folds of Honor Foundation.
Woods returned to the business at hand at the par-3 14th, where anyone listening got a lesson in the nuance of the short game. Woods dropped a few balls in the swale to the right of the green and tried, without great success, to stop some wedge shots close to a short-sided pin. Then he tried bumping 7-irons into the side of the hill, but the ball still ran several feet past the cup.
“A little grainy,” Woods called out to Williams, asking him to fetch “one more club.” Using s 6-iron this time, Tiger bumped a couple of shots to tap-in range. “Yeah, perfect club,” he said.
Woods launched another impressive drive at the 15th, after which Foley huddled with Gary Koch and Tom Randolph of NBC, who had just pulled up in a cart. They squinted at the small screen as Foley pointed out subtle differences in Tiger’s arm positions and discussed – with a reference to Homer Kelley’s book “The Golfing Machine” – how a slight weakening of his grip has changed the way Woods “loads” the club.
At No. 17, Bay Hill’s bunkers came back into play. Woods spent several minutes making shots from the rear bunker at the par 3 hole, complaining all the while about the depth of the sand. Asked if there was new sand in every bunker on the course, he replied, “Yeah, and a lot of it.” Foley suggested Woods switch from his 60-degree wedge to a 54, which seemed to help on shots of 40 to 60 feet.
Woods hammered an exquisite drive at Bay Hill’s famed finishing hole. But his approach shot flared to the right, bouncing off the rocks and into the lake. As Foley had explained to Koch earlier, the occasional squirrely shot is to be expected as Woods gradually gets comfortable with the swing adjustments. Indeed, his second attempt came to rest within 10 feet of the front left pin.
“I really like what I saw today,” Foley said as he headed toward the parking lot. Woods seemed pleased, too. He smiled and obliged several autograph seekers before climbing back into the white Benz for the short ride back to Isleworth.