WINDERMERE, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods took on any shot without pain or worry Thursday, a feeling he hasn’t had on the golf course in a long time.
As for his short game?
He hadn’t seen anything like it in longer than he can remember, and it was shocking.
Woods flubbed four chips. He took two shots to get out of a bunker on the par-5 seventh hole. He didn’t have a birdie putt inside 20 feet until the 11th hole. And on the four birdie chances he had inside 10 feet on the back nine, he made only one of them. And that was a tap-in.
In his first competition in nearly four months, Woods wound up with a 5-over 77 at Isleworth, his home course for his first 16 years as a pro. That put him in last place in the 18-man field, 11 shots behind Jordan Spieth, who is coming off a runaway victory last week in the Australian Open.
“One of those days where nothing went my way,” Woods said.
The score was not nearly as significant as his health in what has been a lost year for Woods because of back problems. He had surgery a week before the Masters that kept him out for three months. He had not played since Aug. 9 at the PGA Championship because of lingering back issues, and the need to build up his muscle structure.
Woods missed the cut at Congressional in June in his first tournament after back surgery. This time, he is coming back from injury and he is working with a new coach. In that respect, the score was not a surprise.
It was the 10th time in 12 rounds that he failed to break par since his first return in June.
Even so, some of the shots were shocking, especially around the green.
On the par-5 17th, he hit his second shot just left of the green, pin-high in a deep collection area. Woods no sooner hit his chip that he angrily swung back-handed toward his divot, knowing what was coming next. The ball didn’t come close to reaching the green, and Woods turned his back as the ball rolled back toward his feet.
He compensated on the next shot and sent it well past the hole, and he had to make a 10-footer just to escape with par.
The other two holes where he muffed chips cost him a double bogey at No. 8 and a bogey at the par-5 13th. Two shots out of the bunker on the par-5 seventh led to bogey.
“It is surprising that I could hit chips that poorly,” he said.
The 77 was his second-highest score of the year. He had a 79 on the South Course at Torrey Pines in January. What kept the day from being a total loss is that Woods reported feeling “zero pain.”
“I haven’t said that in a long time,” Woods said. “It’s very exciting to step up there and hit the drives I hit — especially on the back nine — and start launching it and feel nothing.”
The opening drive set the tone for the day — and his return.
Woods was about to hit his first shot in nearly four months when he heard a loud click of a camera and backed off. Then, he tugged his 3-wood through the fairway, beyond an iron fence into someone’s backyard and presumably into a swimming pool. He had to hit another from the tee and did well to escape with a bogey.
Rust would seem to be an issue, but it certainly wasn’t the case for Steve Stricker. He hasn’t played since the PGA Championship, either, yet Stricker made five birdies in a bogey-free round of 67 and was one shot behind Spieth, along with Dubai World Tour Championship winner Henrik Stenson, Zach Johnson and Rickie Fowler.
Woods played with Jason Day, who last competed at the Tour Championship three months ago. Day shot a 71. FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel and Patrick Reed, both at 73, were the only other players over par on a warm, breezy afternoon.
Spieth won by six shots in Australia last week for his second career title. The 21-year-old flew home to Dallas, then came out to Florida the next day. He was feeling sluggish on Wednesday, but there was no sign of jet lag on Thursday. And there is nothing wrong with his game.
He ran off five straight birdies starting at No. 6, and saved his round with a 12-foot par putt on the 18th.
“I’m excited about how last week went and I’m kind of riding the momentum,” Spieth said. “I’m going to give it my all these last few days.”
Woods felt as though he hit the ball nicely, though certainly not as close as we would like.
Even when he did hit the green in regulation — only four times in his opening 10 holes — he was never close enough for a reasonable birdie chance. He finally got that on the par-3 11th hole, only to miss a 10-foot putt.
When he hit his stride on the back nine, his putting was off. Woods missed a 3
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