DUBLIN, Ohio — Tiger Woods worked on his no-handed follow-through after a wayward-left tee shot on the par-3 4th hole in the first round of the Memorial on Thursday.
After dropping his club in disgust almost on contact, Woods got up-and-down for par, but that was beside the point. Playing just his 10th official round in the last six months, he was still stuck in neutral, carding an even-par 72.
"Wish I could have been lower," Woods said after he hit seven of 14 fairways and just 10 of 18 greens, and played his way into an 18-way tie for 49th place. "I played the par-5s terrible today. I played them even par — can't play these par-5s even par."
Phil Mickelson, who would become the top-ranked player in the game for the first time in his career with a win this week, played those four holes in 3-under. He fired a 5-under-par 67 and was in a five-way tie for 4th place, trailing only Rickie Fowler, Geoff Ogilvy and Justin Rose, all of whom shot 7-under 65s.
Just two weeks remain before the U.S. Open will be played at Pebble Beach Golf Links, and a quick check of the usual co-favorites shows two men going in seemingly opposite directions.
"I told Jack yesterday it would really mean a lot to me to win his tournament," said Mickelson, who opened with four pars and sat out a two-hour rain delay on the back nine, where he started his round. "I don't know why [I haven't]. It's a wonderful course."
A five-time runner-up but never a winner in the year's second major, Mickelson is clearly feeling comfortable with his game. He shot a 30 to win Wednesday's 10-man skins game, in which players wore microphones and squared off in teams of five.
You can forget about the 71-73 Mickelson shot to miss the cut at Colonial last week. He was coming off two sponsor outings in the Midwest, for KPMG, and ran into 90-degree weather both days. Then he flew to Fort Worth, Texas, for the Colonial's pro-am Wednesday, when the temperature reached a steamy 97 degrees.
By the time the actual tournament started, a tournament he won in '08, Mickelson was gassed, and it showed.
But it's a funny thing, even Mickelson's mishaps are turning up roses. The missed cut, he said, "gave me a chance to work with Butch [Harmon, Mickelson's swing coach]. It gave me a chance to work with [Mickelson's putting coach Dave] Stockton."
Woods revealed earlier this week that in the wake of the resignation of his own swing coach, Hank Haney, he is working with no one. He'll try to figure himself out on videotape. It may work, or it may simply recall the old chestnut about how anyone who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client.
The par-4 6th hole offered a telling contrast. Mickelson split the fairway with a 309-yard tee shot, covered the flag with a 144-yard approach, and finally converted on a six-foot birdie putt.
Playing the same hole hours later, Woods saw his approach shot hit a sprinkler head in front of the green and ricochet into the gunk. He tried a full-swing flop-shot that didn't quite make the green, and had to scramble just to save bogey.
The driver is still a problem, still spraying shots right, which is why Woods failed to birdie the two par-5s on the back nine. He will need to get that club straightened out by the time he gets to Pebble Beach. Speaking from the Players Championship last month, NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller went as far as to say Woods is suffering from "David Duval syndrome."
The good news is he's apparently no longer suffering from Andrew Dice Clay syndrome. Woods is trying to curb the swearing and scowling, at the urging of Tom Watson, among others, and you could see it as he toured Muirfield. When voices in the crowd chirped encouragement, Woods looked into the gallery and tried to make eye contact with the well-wisher, and wave. He used to be oblivious to such cheering; you never knew if he even heard it.
These are small things, his looks, his smiles, but they stand out for not just bucking historical precedent but also because Woods is playing such uninspired golf. On a course softened by rain, with exceedingly accessible pins, he made just two birdies, which were offset by two bogeys, but dropped no F-bombs.
He reported with some disappointment that five times he failed to make birdie after leaving himself with approach shots of 125 yards or less. He pulled his wedge-approach into the left fringe on the par-5 11th hole, and into the rough left of the fringe on 14.
"I need competitive rounds," he said, stating the obvious.
He was encouraged by the 162-yard second shot he carved into the par-4 9th hole, the ball cutting slightly around a branch to within 21 feet for birdie. (He converted the putt to turn at 1-over.)
What's more, Woods got to play with his pal Steve Stricker (69), and the two Presidents Cup teammates, playing with Jason Bohn (74), smiled and knuckle-bumped their way around. You got the feeling that after all that's happened, Woods took comfort in the familiar. As they stood next to the par-3 12th green, Stricker took the putter out of Woods's hands and gave it a few quick practice strokes, and handed it back. There may be fewer than five players on Tour with whom Woods has that kind of rapport.
He can, of course, turn things around in a hurry. Woods can go very low very quickly when he gets hot, but he was still waiting for something to happen while Mickelson was going bogey-free and Fowler, 21, was going 6-under in a span of five holes.
Ten years ago Woods was that guy, the turbo-golfer who could seemingly flip a switch and explode past the competition, which is how he came to win the U.S. Open by 15 shots. Many years, a handful of surgeries and one big, messy tabloid free-for-all later, it's obvious who the favorite will be when the Open returns to Pebble Beach, and it's a measure of just how far he's fallen that it's not him. Tiger Woods is still trying to get a grip.