PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Beneath a darkening sky at the end of the first day at the Honda Classic, Tiger Woods retreated to the large practice green behind the 18th hole. He dropped three balls onto the surface and began rapping putts across the shadows of PGA National.
Occasionally, his swing coach, Sean Foley, would step in, grab the putter and offer instruction. Woods would then take the club back and continue sweeping putts across the giant surface.
Many of them fell. Several did not. The scene repeated for 35 minutes.
Whether on the seaside greens at Pebble Beach, the undulating mounds in Arizona or the smooth Bermuda greens at the Honda Classic, Woods’s putting remains as unsettled as a Pollock piece.
He took 34 putts during a one-over-par 71 that left him seven shots behind United States Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III and five shots behind a large group, including Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Ryan Palmer.
On a day built for scoring -- light wind, the lift-clean-and-place rule in effect -- Woods could not capitalize. Only one other golfer, Johnson Wagner, took more putts than Woods. He had 36.
“I find that [the greens] look faster than they are putting,” Woods said after his round. “I had to get committed to hitting putts harder and getting past the hole, and when I start doing that, I will make the putts.”
Woods might eventually, but he didn’t Thursday. Even as his swing coalesces -- and Woods hit a string of lovely tee shots and irons -- the putter remains a mystery.
“I hit a lot of pure putts,” Woods insisted. “They rolled over a lot of edges. They just didn’t quite go in.”
As he is wherever he plays, Woods was the main attraction Thursday, but especially in his first professional start at the Honda. When he arrived at the first tee just before 12:30 p.m., the ropes lining the fairway were packed. His mother, Tida, was in the gallery in a large hat. A young girl brought a homemade sign: “We still love Tiger.” A father and son dressed in matching red shirts that trumpeted Woods’s 71 career wins and 14 majors.
Woods was the picture of confidence on the first tee. He pawed at the clubs in his golf bag, settling on a long iron that twinkled in the sun. He waited for the starter to say his piece.
“On the tee, from Jupiter, Florida, Tiger Woods,” the starter intoned. Woods brought his fingers to the brim of his cap. The place went nuts.
Woods ripped his tee shot down the middle, stuck his second shot to 20 feet, and walked in the birdie putt, and PGA National was alive with possibilities.
Until, in the end, it wasn’t.
After Woods made back-to-back bogeys on No. 6 and No. 7, he rolled in birdie putts on Nos. 9 and 10, only to make bogey on No. 12 and 15.
“I didn’t get a whole lot out of my round,” Woods said.
Love made a hole-in-one on the par-3 fifth hole. McIlroy made five birdies and a lone bogey.
“It was pretty stress-free out there,” McIlroy said. “I put myself in a couple of tricky positions, but I was able to get them up and down. I hit quite a few fairways and a lot of greens and gave myself a lot of chances, and that’s sort of what you need to do around this golf course.”
Woods could not say the same. “I didn’t get up-and-down [on] a couple of easy ones,” he said. “I blew those. A round I should have been probably two- or three-under par quickly turned into one over.”
The difference-maker, of course, is the putter, the club that Woods could always count on, the club that is not agreeing with him now, the club that he held in his hands as Thursday afternoon turned into night.