By Zak Kozuchowski
GolfWRX Managing Editor
Tiger Woods’ 2-over first round puts him in bad position at The Players Championship. But even though Woods is nine shots behind current leaders Ian Poulter and Martin Laird and likely needs to shoot more than an average round tomorrow to secure a spot in the weekend field, Woods didn’t play that poorly today. And the state of his game is better than you think.
After the round, Woods said that his good shots ended up in bad spots, and his bad shots ended up in worse spots. It sounds like normal Tiger speak, a way for the former No. 1 player in the world to blame a bad score on anything but himself. But having followed Woods on every hole on Thursday, it was clear he got the shaft in Round 1.
Woods was the longest player in his group, which also included Hunter Mahan, a two-time winner in 2012, and last week’s Quail Hollow Championship winner, Rickie Fowler – both pretty long hitters. On the par 5s on the back nine (the group’s first nine), Woods was able to use long irons when Mahan and Fowler were stuck with woods or hybrids. The problem was, Woods didn’t convert any birdies on those par 5s.
Woods’ worst shot of the day came on No. 11, his second hole, after he striped a driver down the left center of the fairway. Woods said after the round that he was in between the yardage of his 3 iron and 4 iron on the par 5, and chose to “slam” a 4 iron as hard as he could hit it. Unfortunately, Woods slammed the ground before he slammed the ball at impact, hitting a shot that barely carried the water well short of the green. Woods recovered by playing a beautiful long bunker shot below the hole, but like many other times in Round 1, his putt just missed.
Woods, Mahan and Fowler each birdied No. 17, which played easy in Round 1 because of a front-right pin position. But the group stumbled on No. 18. Even though Woods and Fowler placed their tee shots perfectly in the center of the fairway, Woods missed the green short and to the right, and failed to convert a makeable par putt. Fowler three putted from the front of the green, and Mahan made a double bogey after driving his ball in the water off the tee. Woods was smiling and chatting with Mahan and Fowler all day, but he was at his most serious when he walked off No. 18. This made it all the more impressive when he flipped his golf ball to a young boy who looked to have recently lost his two front teeth. It won’t earn Woods the Nobel Peace Prize, but it’s a start.
“Are you serious,” his mother exclaimed. “I can’t believe it.”
After the turn, Woods launched another driver in the fairway on No. 1, and appeared to have struck his iron shot within birdie range. But the ball was a few yards short from staying on top of the ridge that protected the pin position, rolling down the slope and back onto the fringe. Woods chose putter from that position, but the ball hopped as it skidded through the Bermuda grass, coming up well short, leaving him another makeable par putt that he missed.
It looked as though it could fall apart for Woods at that moment. He was two-over, and the scoreboard showed that other players were going low given the fairly soft, low wind conditions. It got even worse for Woods after his tee shot on No. 2, where he tried to hit a draw, but instead hit a low hook. He drew a good lie in the rough, and boldly dug into the pine straw with his feet, proceeding to smash a 5 wood nearly hole high. He converted that up and down for birdie, and for the moment looked to be back on track. But it proved to be a day where Woods couldn’t get any momentum going.
Fowler and Mahan played safe iron shots to the front of the green on No. 3, where the pin was on the back tier of the deep and narrow putting surface. Woods went with a different strategy, hitting a mid-iron that landed hole high to the right of the stick.
“Did it stay on,” Woods asked his caddie Joe LaCava.
“They didn’t clap, so I don’t think so,” LaCava said.
“That was perfect,” Woods said. “The best swing I made all day.”
Woods drew a tough lie in the rough, with the ball well below his feet. As Woods started to bring the club down, there was a loud “click” that caught his attention. Woods wasted no time criticizing the person behind the camera.
“Not in my swing,” Woods said. “Put the cameras away.”
Sure, there were moments where the huge crowds distracted Mahan and Fowler, but not to the extent that Woods faced. After most of Woods’ shots, half of the huge galleries would migrate toward to green, leaving Mahan, who is leading the PGA Tour’s FedExCup, and Fowler, one of the most popular players on Tour, with few eyes on them.
But Woods kept grinding, showcasing his ability to hit the long ball. He was also impressive with his irons, shaping shots both ways with high and low trajectories. There was a collective gasp from the gallery on No. 9 after Woods sent his drive in the palm trees left of the fairway. And his second shot from the rough wasn’t much better, landing in a waste area a large section of trees, leaving him no shot to the green. But Woods smartly pitched out, and then played a crisp pitch shot to the back-right pin position, converting the short par putt to salvage a 74.
Woods called it “one of those days,” saying he should have shot an under-par score. And he’s right, the final score didn’t represent how well he played. But Woods showed me something I haven’t seen much of since the scandal – patience. Yes, the putter will continue to be a question mark for him as he goes forward, but the ability for him to hit all the shots seems to have returned. And if his patience has truly returned, it is more valuable than the results of any swing changes. In my experience, the most patient putters are usually the best putters. And the best putters, especially those with Woods’ ball striking skills, win a lot of tournaments.