Tiger headed for uncharted territory

AKRON, Ohio -- An early-morning tee time, no chance of winning and a lengthy rain delay are not typically mood enhancers for Tiger Woods.

He began the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational buried in a hole made earlier in the week by an uncooperative putter, and left Firestone Country Club in a hurry Sunday afternoon, a major championship on his mind.

But Woods did not exude any negativity, and there is good reason for that after a final-round 66 jumped him into a tie for eighth. Keegan Bradley won Sunday at Firestone after Jim Furyk double-bogeyed the final hole.

Despite being out of contention almost from Day 1, Woods left the site where he won seven PGA Tour events in a much better frame of mind than when he packed up each of the past two years here.

He was at the bottom, with virtually no game or swing, in 2010. Last year, he was returning from an injury-filled summer and would go on to miss the cut at the PGA Championship.

This year, the results and the attitude are far different. Sure, Woods' putting was a source of concern, but there is a far different mindset when the putts are not dropping compared to when the swing is not working.

"Absolutely," said Woods when asked about having a different comfort level at the moment. "Hitting fairways and greens, you're shooting high rounds of 2 under par and 3 under par, that's a good sign. Those are the worst scores you can possibly shoot that day, that's always a positive sign.

"It's not good when you're shooting those scores and you get absolutely everything out of it."

It's true that Woods did not get much out of his rounds here until Sunday, when he shot 4-under-par 31 on the front nine and finished with 66. He finally made a few putts, and Woods contended he was not that far off. He played the weekend with just a single bogey.

So what does it mean for the PGA Championship this week?

In truth, what Woods has done of late is likely of little value in determining how he will fare at the year's fourth major championship. He won in his last start prior to both the Masters and U.S. Open, and that did not translate into victory; he missed the cut at the Greenbrier, then posted his best finish in a major in three years when he tied for third at the Open Championship.

"I am always just trying to keeping building toward the majors and hopefully the game will peak at that right time," Woods said. "I have come close a couple of times this year. I had the lead at the U.S. Open for a couple of days. In the British Open, I was right there, so it's about having everything come together at the right time.

"When I get that timing right, and I've done it a few times over my career … hopefully this week will be another one of those times."

Adding to the intrigue is the lack of knowledge about Kiawah Island. Woods visited the Ocean Course Tuesday to get his first look at the nearly 7,700-yard, par-72 layout.

Just as he did on his first visit to Royal Lytham three weeks ago, Woods used the opportunity to chart all the greens and get his yardages figured out.

But for the first time since the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry, where he missed the cut, Woods is playing at a major championship where he has not previously competed on the venue in competition. This is just the third time since 2005 that has been the case. Of course, he tied for fourth at the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol, and won the 2006 Open Championship at Hoylake.

"That's one of the reasons why it was nice to go to Kiawah a few days earlier before I came here to Akron, so that I don't have to do any charting this week, and all I have to do is to go out there and play," Woods said.

"Hopefully we will get a couple of different wind directions."

And perhaps a good feel for the greens. Woods noted that he's only once previously played a course that has paspalum greens, the type of surface used at Kiawah. How much that matters remains to be seen, but you can't dismiss it given Woods' putting problems of late.

At Royal Lytham, he struggled with the speed, leaving numerous putts short. At Firestone, Woods seemed to have issues with technique, as numerous opportunities slid past the hole. For the tournament, he ranked 57th in the field in the strokes gained-putting statistic. In putts per greens in regulation, he was tied for 67th among 75 players who played all four rounds, needing 122 total putts for the week and never going lower than 29 in a round.

And yet, Woods was T-2 in greens hit in regulation (54-of-72) and tied for 13th in fairways. And Sunday's round was especially strong from tee to green. Woods twice missed greens on the fringe and chipped only one time.

So he's hitting the ball nicely but not putting quite so well.

And he seems to be OK with that.

"My tee-to-green game today was I thought pretty dialed in," Woods said. "I was hitting it long, I was hitting it straight, and my irons I was shaping both ways in all different trajectories with the wind blowing. That was about as high a score as I could possibly shoot today."

It's not something he would ever brag about, but Woods does go into the PGA Championship having posted consecutive top-10s. No big deal? It's the first time Woods has done that since the end of the 2009 season.