NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. (AP) — In the five years Arjun Atwal has been playing practice rounds with Tiger Woods at home in Florida, he learned long ago to stop comparing himself with the world’s No. 1 player.
There was no comparison Thursday in the AT&T National.
Atwal made seven birdies in his round of 4-under 66 and was in a four-way tie for the lead at Aronimink Golf Club. Woods threw away five shots over the last five holes and opened with a 3-over 73, making it a challenge Friday just to make the cut.
“It was a very frustrating day on the greens, especially how good I was driving it,” Woods said. “I was driving it on a string all day.”
Atwal had no such complaints after finding himself atop the leaderboard with Nick Watney, Joe Ogilvie and Byron Nelson winner Jason Day on a tough day at Aronimink, where the pin locations made it difficult to attack the flags.
Playing on a sponsor’s exemption – spending so much time with Woods has its perks – Atwal recovered from a bogey on his opening hole with three straight birdies, all of them inside 12 feet, and kept the mistakes to a minimum.
“Four under, I think, is a great score for me or anybody on this golf course,” Atwal said. “I’ll take it every day.”
Woods, who won the AT&T National last year at Congressional, had his best round of the year off the tee. He hit driver on all but three holes on the tree-lined course with rough nearly as thick as it was in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He just didn’t give himself that many birdie chances, and when he did, he couldn’t make any.
His only two birdies were from 4 feet on the opening hole, and a 60-foot putt from the back of the green on the par-3 fifth. What hurt even more, however, was the finish.
Woods was at 1 under and poised to join the crowd toward the top of the leaderboard. Then came a three-putt from 50 feet on the 14th to bring him back to even par. Then, he really unraveled.
After laying up perfectly from the rough on the par-5 16th, he had 82 yards to a front pin. His swing was so bad that Woods flung the wedge toward his bag and started walking as it flared to the right and into the bunker. He made bogey on the easiest hole on the course.
The par-3 17th proved to be the toughest hole at Aronimink. No one hit it closer than 15 feet all day on the 197-yard hole over water, and Jonathan Byrd made the lone birdie. Woods tried to hammer a 6-iron toward the middle of the green, but he turned it and watched it come up short on the shaved bank and trickle down into the water. From the drop area, he hit it to 15 feet and made double bogey.
Walking quickly to the 18th, Woods hit his best drive of the day and followed that with a wedge to 5 feet. His round ended appropriately when the birdie putt caught the corner of the cup and spun away.
Woods will start the second round Friday morning in a tie for 81st, needing a good round to stick around for the weekend in a tournament that benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation.
“I keep hitting it like this, I’ll be fine,” Woods said. “The putts will start going in. It felt good to drive it on a string again.”
It felt great for Atwal, who is playing on a minor medical extension this year after injuring his shoulders while lifting weights last year. He has eight more tournaments to earn about $280,000 and retain full playing status for the rest of the year.
Atwal, who grew up playing Royal Calcutta in his native India, was the first Indian to win on the European Tour in 2002. He also made news when a man trying to race him down an Orlando street died in a crash. Atwal was cleared of any wrongdoing, although the investigation lasted a year and took an emotional toll.
Lately, however, he is best known for playing with Woods – not only at Isleworth, but three rounds of practice at the U.S. Open.
“As far as comparing myself with him … it’s strange, because we practice and play every day, so I’ve stopped doing that,” Atwal said. “Initially, when I used to practice and play with him, I used to compare myself. But now, it’s just … whatever. He’s always helped me if I have any questions about short game or whatever it is. He’s always been there.”
Asked what kind of bets they have at Isleworth, Atwal smiled and said, “No comment.”
“All I can say is I owe him a little bit right now,” he said.
The debt might feel even heavier if Atwal can continue his play in a tournament that Woods helped to get him in.