PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods hit one tee shot that went 190 yards and barely reached the fairway. He hit another shot smack into the middle of a sawgrass plant, the ball only seen by standing over it and suspended a few inches off the ground.
Both times, he scratched out a par and wound up with a 2-under 70 in The Players Championship.
That’s usually not a bad score to start out this tournament.
Just not on Thursday.
J.B. Holmes and Robert Allenby shared the lead at 66, which didn’t give them much separation. Twenty players were separated by two shots at the top of the leaderboard.
Conditions were so benign, and greens were so soft, that more than half the field broke par on the Stadium Course. And that’s not all. The 36 players who shot in the 60s were the most for the opening round since 1994, and the average score (71.1) was the lowest in 17 years in the first round.
“I only made three birdies today,” said Woods, who didn’t make a bogey until the final hole when his 5-wood took a hard hop into the water. “I had myself a few chances in there to make some putts, make some birdies, and didn’t really do it.”
Masters champion Phil Mickelson shot the same score, in much more conventional fashion.
He felt about the same way.
“Two under is not what I wanted today,” Mickelson said. “But there is a round in the mid 60s. If I can shoot that tomorrow, I’ll get right back in it.”
Holmes played bogey-free for his 66. The only time he came close to a bogey was at No. 10, when he hit over the green and did well to chip to 15 feet before making the par putt.
“It was a fun day, one of those rounds where everything was going pretty good,” Holmes said. “It’s kind of one of those rounds where it’s not easy, but it felt pretty easy.”
Allenby played in the afternoon, when the breeze kicked up, and only had one lapse with a three-putt on the par-3 eighth.
“Greens were a bit slow out there, definitely quite soft after the rain that we’ve had the last couple of days,” Allenby said. “It definitely made it very accessible, some of those flags. I’m happy with the start, just happy to be amongst it.”
It was a big crowd.
Francesco Molinari of Italy had a chance to join the leaders until he chopped up the par-5 ninth hole for a bogey and joined the large group at 68. Those at 69 included Jim Furyk and Vijay Singh, along with Davis Love III, who showed that even a benign Sawgrass still has some bite. He was tied for the lead until making bogeys on the last three holes.
With scrutiny higher than after the worst tournament of his career, Woods settled down after a shaky start and eased speculation that he could miss consecutive cuts for the first time in his career.
A week ago at Quail Hollow, Woods had his second-highest round (79) and the worst 36-hole score (153) of his career to miss the cut by eight shots. Then came practice rounds that didn’t look much better.
“I’ve felt like I’ve done some good work this week, even though reports are I was hitting all over the lot,” Woods said. “But I was working on a few things. I was very comfortable with what I was working toward, and I was very excited about what was happening. It was just a matter of doing it in competition. And I did it today.”
A few pars saved the day – one after a hooked tee shot into the trees, another when he fanned a shot to the right into the bunker on No. 4, then made an 8-foot par putt after hitting another bunker.
And nothing looked worse than a 3-wood that he popped up on No. 7, barely reaching the fairway and having to hit a 5-wood for his second shot on a par 4. He got up-and-down for par, and two holes later, gave a light but meaningful fist pump when he hit 5-wood to a tucked green on the par-5 ninth to 18 feet for a two-putt birdie.
He only hit one bad shot the rest of the round, but it led to a recovery shot that his caddie opposed.
Woods pulled his 5-wood on the short 12th hole smack into a sawgrass bush, the ball suspended a few inches off the ground. Steve Williams suggested that he declare an unplayable lie and take a penalty shot.
“That was a hit-and-hope,” Woods said.
He went to another bush to simulate how the ball might come out. As he stood over the shot, Williams was still pointing to the grass behind him as a good place to drop. Woods ignored him, never taking his eyes off the shot.
“It was a very, very low percentage shot,” Williams said. “If he takes the drop, the worst he can make is 5. He could have hit it anywhere. He could have whiffed it. But he said, ‘I think I can hit this.'”
Woods hit it to the front of the green, chipped to 5 feet and made his par. His only bogey came on the 18th, when his 5-wood had too much draw and took a hard hop left into the water. He turned and cursed twice, then began the long walk up the fairway to figure out where to drop. There went Woods’ hope of breaking 70 in the opening round at Sawgrass for the first time in his career.
He was more bothered by missing so birdie chances – four putts inside 12 feet. Even so, Woods sounded much more optimistic after playing only his seventh round of competition since Nov. 15.
“It takes time to get into the rhythm of competing, and it takes tournaments,” he said. “And I haven’t had a lot of tournaments under my belt.”