By Jeff Rude, Golfweek
SAN MARTIN, Calif. – We used to count Tiger Woods’ victories, birdies and wow moments. We used to marvel at his recurring brilliance. We used to make sure we never took our eyes off of him for fear of missing something remarkable.
We still are compelled to watch – but to see if he can recapture form. We still count – but different things such as bunkers found and short putts missed. And we’re still amazed – but because he remains stuck in the mode of just another guy.
So it was in the Frys.com Open’s first round Thursday, Woods’ first competition since Aug. 12. The day before, he had pronounced himself ready, confident and comfortable that his retooled swing was feeling second nature. But his uneven performance of 2-over 73
suggested there’s plenty of work to be done, particularly with the shortest club in his bag, if he is to restore whatever measure of his glory days.
One round after yet another competitive layoff does not represent a significant exam. But Woods clearly resembled the player who hasn’t won in two years, not the one with 71 PGA Tour trophies, including 14 majors, on his resume.
Painting by numbers didn’t produce a Rembrandt of old.
Woods missed three putts inside of 6 feet on his first 11 holes at CordeValle Golf Club – from 3 feet at the third, 5 1/2 feet at the ninth and 4 feet at the 11th.
He found six bunkers in his first 14 holes, including three sand shots alone in bogeying the second hole.
It took him three holes to make two bogeys but 15 to rack up two birdies.
He double bogeyed a par 5, the 12th, after hooking a drive into rough and pulling his second into a hazard.
All that meant you had to scroll down the score list, not up like the old days, to find his position. A par save from 5 1/2 feet at 14 meant he stayed in a tie for 109th instead of dropping to T-122. And the 5-foot birdie putt at the par-5 15th meant he ended up T-84, six shots off the lead and four behind amateur playing competitor Patrick Cantlay’s 69.
“Not happy,” Woods said afterward when asked how he felt. “It was one of the worst putting rounds I’ve ever had. I don’t think I can putt any worse than I did today.”
Woods did make putts in the 4- to 6-foot range on Nos. 14-16, the last after his ball circled the hole. But he clearly doesn’t putt nearly as well as during his Secretariat years.
He didn’t used to miss three short putts on his first 11 holes. Something’s different – confidence, focus, technique, eyes, posture? – and that has been the case for a long while.
Woods himself cited a couple of reasons for his difficulty here: Inactivity and speed.
“I haven’t played,” he said. “Number 2, I haven’t practiced as much as I have in the past.”
What’s more, he said the greens here aren’t as fast as those at his new home course, Medalist in Hobe Sound, Fla., and he never got the pace down.
“My stroke got worse because I was trying to (alter) it, and I started losing confidence in it because I wasn’t hitting my line,” he said. “So it was just a downward spiral.”
If he is again going to collect trophies by the bunches, not to mention a major a year on average, his work with the flat stick will need to improve significantly.
He used to be automatic. Now he seems often tentative.
He used to make 12 1/2-foot birdie putts, not miss several inches low as he did on No. 17. He again missed another birdie try low, from 12 feet, at the last.
Based on what we see and feel now, his winning of five more majors to break Jack Nicklaus’ record would qualify as his best body of work, more impressive than the first 14. That’s all things considered, like the mental (post-scandal divorce) and physical (left leg) damage endured the past two calendars.
On the cusp of 36, he has plenty of time, of course – to win a handful of majors, to get ready for the Masters, even to find form before next month’s Presidents Cup.
A finally-healthy Woods has gotten in countless, needed swing repetitions since he missed the cut at the PGA Championship. He spiked his confidence with a 62 last week at Medalist.
But there’s something else he dearly needs now: Something positive under the gun – inside Tour ropes, not inside the gates of his home course. You could see that somewhat with ball-striking. He hit seven of 14 fairways and nine greens in regulation, plus two fringes. But some odd swings showed up, such as the steep action with a 3-wood off the fifth tee that produced a fat shot that ended up about 60 yards behind the 3-wood shot of playing competitor Louis Oosthuizen.
“The rest of my game was not too bad,” Woods said. “I hit some bad shots, yes. But I also hit some really good ones. But I got nothing out of the round on the greens.”
That meant he was headed off to the putting green. And to the tool kit.
“I think I’m going to go put some lead tape on (the putter) and see if maybe (there’s) a little more mass,” Woods said. “It’s always worked in the past. I think I’m going to have to do that here.”