SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — By the time Tiger Woods made the turn in the opening round of a year that means so much for so many reasons, he had already stubbed one chip and bladed another. Things had gotten so bad that he twice took to using the putter from well off the green, lest he mess up his day even more.
He hadn’t given up, though, and neither had the fans, who swarmed loudly around the Phoenix Open in record numbers. As he walked the gauntlet between the nines, they pleaded with Woods to do something, anything, to make both his day and theirs a little better.
“You got this, Tiger!” one yelled. “Go get ’em on the back nine!” another shouted out.
Two brilliant shots that brought back memories of the Tiger of old helped Woods do just that Thursday. They also helped him avert the kind of disaster that might have been felt by the Woods camp long after the PGA Tour leaves the Arizona desert.
The 2-over 73 wasn’t exactly what Woods had in mind when he decided to begin his year with a trip to a tournament he hasn’t played in 14 years. Not on an overcast day where there were low scores to be had on TPC Scottsdale.
But it could have been worse, much worse. And for that Woods could be happy, despite a short game that looked more like it belonged to a tourist playing the course, not the greatest player of his era.
If he needed something to convince himself he could still play after injuries and yet another swing change, he could hang his hat on playing the last six holes in 3-under par.
“It’s not the first time I have gone through this,” Woods said. “It takes time. It’s just a frustrating thing where I just need to get through competitive rounds. I need to get rounds under my belt and get a feel for it.”
It’s also not the first time Woods has expressed similar thoughts. Anyone who has followed Woods in recent years has heard him say the same kind of things about trusting his swing, and working his way through the rust, but it’s now been a long seven years since he last won a major championship.
And whether Woods will allow himself to believe it or not, his latest problems might be tougher to fix than a missing tooth.
Driving the ball sideways is one thing, and Woods did hit it wayward a few times Thursday in only his second competitive tournament in six months. But resorting to hit chips with a 4-iron because you don’t trust yourself with a wedge in hand is almost unheard of in the top echelon of professional golf.
“I’m just having a hard time finding the bottom,” Woods said. “Because of my old pattern, I was so steep on it, that I have a new grind on my wedge and sometimes it’s hard to trust. This is a similar grind I used to use back in the early 2000s, but it’s a different grind. Some of my shots were into the green with tight pins, and either I’ll flop it or bump it, one of the two. I chose to bump it.”
Got that? There will be a quiz at the Masters, where tentative chippers don’t last long around tightly mown collection areas and undulating greens.
If this was an unusual place for Woods to begin his season, it wasn’t altogether unfamiliar. He was here under much different circumstances in 2001, where he was coming off three major championship wins in a row and getting ready to go for the Tiger Slam in the Masters.
He opened with a 65 that year, but that wasn’t the big story. It came in the second round when a remarkable streak of shooting par or better over 52 straight rounds came to an end when Woods struggled to a 73.
Few believed what they saw that day, and Woods would go on to win the Masters for his fourth straight major. He’s now won 14 of them, the last coming at Torrey Pines in 2008.
Contrast that to this year when the 73 marked the fifth consecutive round on the PGA Tour that Woods hasn’t broken par. It was also the first time he opened a year with a score over par since turning pro nearly two decades ago.
An iron shot to tap-in eagle on the par-5 13th might give him some hope of better times ahead. So will the drive to 20 feet on the par-4 17th hole.
But on this day the only thing resembling the Tiger Woods of old were the huge galleries following him at all times, on a day when an estimated record crowd of 118,461 came out to watch his season debut.
If nothing else, Tiger Woods still knows how to draw a crowd.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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