Inside the Ropes: Tiger had early magic, but his round turned into disaster

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Tiger Woods hasn't won a major since George W. Bush was president, Apple stock went for $180 and Lady Gaga was still known mostly as Stefani. In case you missed it, his life hasn't exactly been dull since returning last week from knee and Achilles injuries that knocked him out for more than three months. He returned to the Tour at the Bridgestone Invitational and finished tied for 37th while Adam Scott won the event with Tiger's ex-caddie Steve Williams on the bag. Immediately afterward, Williams popped off to the press about how that win was the most satisfying of his career. Oh, and this week Tag Heuer officially dropped Woods as one of its celebrity pitchmen, ending a 10-year partnership. Let's face it: at this point, Barnum & Bailey is a better fit to sponsor Tiger. On Thursday morning I decided to step inside the ropes of the circus as Woods teed off with Davis Love III and Padraig Harrington at the PGA Championship. Here's what I saw.

 

• Great scene on the tee at the 10th, the first hole for Tiger's group. Love won this event in 1997, and Harrington lifted the Wanamaker Trophy in 2008. Woods has won four PGAs, the last in 2007. The Wanamaker Trophy was sparkling within view as Woods, Love and Harrington made their way to the tee. Woods got the biggest ovation, although it wasn't thunderous. A marshal tossed a caddie bib to Bryon Bell, Tiger's friend and temporary replacement caddie, and Bell struggled with it to the point where I wasn't sure if he was trying to put it on or wrestle it to the ground. He's still a little new at all this, you know? Anyway, Tiger knocked a 3-wood down the middle, and we were off.

• On his first hole, Tiger hit a smooth approach to about 12 feet, and after studying the putt for some time, he drilled it for birdie. He even added a mini-fist pump, prompting one guy to holler, "He's baaaack." (This would turn out to be whatever the opposite of foreshadowing is.) Love also birdied; Harrington parred.

• Tiger took a swig of some sort of pink concoction from a clear, unlabeled plastic bottle. How can there be no label? Clearly a prime opportunity for Barnum & Bailey.

• After teeing off with a 3-wood again on 11 and two-putting for par, Tiger pulled out the driver for the first time on the par-5 12th and hit a big push, which ended well right of the fairway and in the few trees. Woods hit a daring escape — he had to start it at the trees on the left, then cut it back, and with water on the right it was a risky move. He landed it in a left greenside bunker and got up-and-down for birdie. Two-under through three.

• Tiger went back to the 3-wood on 13 and found a fairway bunker on the right. After a long chat with Harrington while walking up the fairway, TW hit the green from 109 yards and two-putted for par.

• As Woods teed off with another 3-wood on 14, Bell was already halfway up the fairway, walking ahead and alone. I don't want to say Bell was in over his head, but that's when "Frank," Woods's famous Tiger driver headcover, slipped off and fell to the ground, unbeknownst to Bell. Several fans called out to Bell, who quickly retreated and sheepishly scooped Frank off the ground before heading off to Tiger's tee shot. Close one.

• Woods stuffed his approach and birdied 14. He was three under through five holes. So, Frank hitting the ground and nearly being left for dead wasn't a bad omen ... right?

• The 15th is a monstrous 260-yard par-3, and the start of a brutal four-hole stretch that will probably determine this week's winner. Woods chose a 4-iron, and his shot was short and right, and splashed into a pond. Double-bogey. Back to one under.

• On 16 Tiger went with driver and found another right-side fairway bunker. He hit his approach shot heavy and made another bogey. After seven holes, we were back where we started: even par.

• After a steady par on 17, Woods arrived at the tee on the nasty 507-yard par-4 18th. He strolled to the back of the tee box and paced off the yardage to the front, where today's tee was stationed, maybe 20 yards. You would only do this if you were looking for an excuse to hit a 3-wood, and Tiger apparently found one. But he pushed his fairway wood into — stop me if you've heard this one — a right-side bunker. This one stuck in the face of the bunker, and all he could do was blast out. Double bogey. Woods played holes 15-18 in five over.

• This week the PGA is passing out pedometers to all media members as part of a promotion dubbed "Let's Move on the Course," although I think a better name would be "Let's Move Away From the Buffet." I also think it's great that we're being served both this health initiative and unlimited ice cream bars and double-chocolate brownies all afternoon in the press tent. I love this country. I strapped a pedometer to my belt this morning, and as we made the turn, Woods was two over, Love was one under, Harrington was two over, I'd taken 5,696 steps, and it was 90 degrees and muggy. Time to grind.

• Tiger tried another 3-wood on No. 1 and pulled this one left, a first for the day. His ball hit a spectator and kicked back into play, still in the rough. As Woods approached, the man said, "You got me, Tiger!" Woods pulled out a glove and a Sharpie and signed it for him. I sauntered over for a debriefing from the victim, 64-year-old Ralph "Heff" Heffernan, of nearby Peachtree Corners. "People around me yelled, and I turned my back and it got me right in the middle," he said happily. "It was a glancing blow. I can take more." Heff then pulled his shirt up to show me the welt. I quickly excused myself and headed back after Tiger. I did not photograph Heff's bruised, pale back. You're welcome, America.

• Tiger bogeyed No. 1, then popped another driver into a right-side fairway bunker on No. 2. He left his approach in another sand trap and failed to get up and down. Another bogey. He was four over at this point, and it was starting to get ugly.

• Speaking of ugly, after 11 holes watching the guy, I still couldn't figure out what color Tiger's shirt was. "Magenta?" "Fuchsia?" "Electric Flamingo?" The best I could come up with was, "Angry Cotton Candy."

• This also seems like a good time to mention that Tiger once again was wearing those prototype Nike "Free" golf shoes, which are modeled after one of the company's running shoe lines. Here's my question: Did he fire his old shoes? And if his old shoes win this week, will they take all the credit and immediately declare it the biggest win of their career?

• Woods made par on No. 3 then bogeyed 4 after pushing another drive right. Most of the media who were tagging along with me inside the ropes had found other places to be. The buzz was officially dead, and Tiger was now five over.

• After a birdie at the par-5 fifth, Woods pushed yet another 3-wood into a right fairway bunker on No. 6. He hit more bunkers than fairways today. There's water short and left of the green on No. 6, and when Tiger hit his approach out of the bunker, he never even looked up to watch it. He knew. Splash. Double bogey. Six over.

• On the tee at No. 7, a 184-yard par-3, I crouched close to Woods and Bell. I could see them talking but couldn't quite hear what they were saying. Here's my guess as to how the conversation went:

TW: Hey, B, how about I just fake a little limp and we head in for the day? We could be wheels up by three.
BB: Whatever you want to do, boss.
TW: Nah, just give me a 7-iron.
BB: Which one is a 7-iron again?
TW: [Sighs] Never mind. I'll do it.

• Woods parred the seventh and eighth, and then on No. 9, his last hole of day, Woods — wait for it — pushed his drive into a fairway bunker, hit a weak approach, and made another bogey. Just after Tiger's putt dropped, a plane flew overhead toting a banner that read, "OASIS HOT GIRLS GIRLS OASIS!" Stay classy, Atlanta.

• Tiger signed for a seven-over 77. If he misses the cut, tomorrow could be his last competitive round in the U.S. until he plays the Chevron World Challenge on Dec. 2 because he wouldn't qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. Not good times for Tiger, or the PGA Tour. Love finished with a solid two-under 68. Harrington scuffled to a three-over 73. I finished with 11,107 strides on the pedometer, roughly five-and-a-half miles. The sun and humidity were relentless. Not an easy walk for anyone out there.

After the round, Woods briefly spoke to reporters and said that when he reached three under, he stopped thinking about his swing and tried to simply play with a clear head. The results were disastrous.

"Because I was three under early, and I said, you know what, every shot I hit up to that point were all mechanical thoughts," Woods said. "I put the club in a certain position, and I said, you know what, I'm feeling good. Let's just go. And it cost me the whole round."

Many reporters will probably write that Tiger lost his mojo with his first double-bogey of the day on 15, but I would argue that the magic was extinguished when Bell almost left his driver headcover in the 14th fairway.

Either way, after 18 holes, Woods was a staggering 14 shots behind the early leader, Steve Stricker.

"I'm not down, I'm angry right now," Woods said. "There's a lot of words I could use beyond that."

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