WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.VA. -– It started out so quietly at this remote West Virginia resort. Tiger Woods made birdie on two of his first three holes at the Greenbrier Classic in such simple fashion that it seemed the control of his game that he’d displayed at last week’s AT&T National victory would extend into his debut at Jim Justice’s place.
That early ease he exhibited Thursday morning didn’t last long, though. A double-bogey 7 – a cardinal sin on the PGA Tour – and three additional bogeys added up to 71, eight shots off Vijay Singh’s early lead.
“I just didn't quite have my game or didn't have the speed on the greens, too,” Woods said. “The golf course is definitely a course you could tear apart today. The greens are firm but slow, and drive the ball in the fairway and you're going to have a bunch of holes where it's going to be 9-iron on down.”
This is Woods’ last start before the Open Championship, so it’s our last opportunity to evaluate his game before the season’s third major. We may not be able to get an accurate assessment, though. Woods, who did a Nike photo shoot Monday, didn’t play his first practice round until Wednesday’s pro-am. That’s not Woods’ typical preparation, especially for an event he’s playing for the first time, as he is here.
Woods’ 71 was an accurate assessment of his day. He didn’t have a multitude of makeable birdie chances that missed by the smallest of margins. Nor did a stellar short-game allow him to scramble his way to a score around par. It was a mediocre day, and resulted in a mediocre score.
He hit 10 of 14 fairways Thursday. The biggest problem was his inability to get his approach shots close. He said his swing was just a “fraction” off, and that Thursday’s high score was mostly caused by poor green-reading, but Woods didn’t hit it close enough to have many realistic birdie chances. He hit 12 greens, but hit just five approach shots within 20 feet of the hole. That’s not acceptable on a course where players have so many short-iron approaches.
Woods teed off at 8:10 a.m. Thursday on the Old White TPC’s 10th hole, playing alongside Steve Stricker and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson.
Early in the round, Woods casually leaned on his putter as he waited his turn on the greens. He seemed confident after last week’s victory, his second in his past three starts. There were no practice swings or drills as he walked down fairways, a sign he’s becoming more accustomed to the Sean Foley swing changes.
He hit his first six fairways and six of his first seven greens Thursday. Birdies came on a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 11 and a two-putt from 40 feet on the par-5 12th. His struggles at 17 put him over par, though.
Three rounds remain here, but Woods will have ground to make up. The Greenbrier’s Old White TPC underwent renovations before last year’s event, when Scott Stallings won with a 10-under total. Recent storms and the greens’ maturation made them play softer and slower than last year, explaining Thursday’s low scores.
Two of Woods’ bogeys were caused by misses that were off by the smallest of margins. Approach shots on Nos. 13 and 2 were just a foot off the green. Neither chip was very difficult, but he couldn’t get either within 6 feet.
Tee shots were to blame on the other two over-par holes. He made double-bogey on the par-5 17th after blocking his tee shot into a creek right of the water. He 3-putted from 20 feet, missing a 2-footer for bogey. He bogeyed the sixth hole after pulling his tee shot into thick grass in the face of a fairway bunker, then short-siding his approach into a greenside bunker.
Woods won his third event of the year at last week’s AT&T National at Congressional, where firm, fast conditions had the course playing more like a major than when it hosted last year’s U.S. Open. Last week's win was the first time he won a regular PGA Tour event with an over-par opening round. Woods will have to repeat that feat if he wants to win this week.
“My last three tournaments, the greens were awfully quick and they have a lot of swing at the end because of how fast they are,” Woods said. “I missed literally every single putt high today.”
And it resulted in a 1-over 71. A mediocre score for a mediocre day.
Follow Sean Martin on Twitter at @GolfweekSMartin