SAN DIEGO (AP) — It began, as it usually does, on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, in a place Tiger Woods holds dear.
A perfect way to start the season. A perfect time to start anew.
The day before, Woods had declared his head to be as clear as the brilliant blue Southern California sky. Now, as Rocco Mediate finished off a nasty 3-putt on the 7th green, Woods pondered the only issue that seemed to be bothering him on this day.
“Why does Roc still have that vest on?” he asked. “It’s like a winter jacket or something.”
It certainly wasn’t to ward off the cold on the north course at Torrey Pines. The substantial crowds following Woods and the man who gave him a memorable run at the 2008 U.S. Open here were so sunbaked in 75-degree weather they could work up little more than polite applause anytime Woods did something to remind them of the legend he once was.
The last time he played here he won an epic Open on one leg, then hugged his wife and kids in one of those special moments you see every so often in sports. Nothing seemed impossible then for the world’s greatest player as he collected his 14th major championship trophy and continued his inexorable run for the record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus.
So much has changed in 19 months. The wife is gone and, for a long time, so was his game. The player who once only had to find the first tee to win, could barely find a fairway and went without a victory for the first time in his remarkable pro career.
If Thursday was any indication, there are signs that drought may not last long.
His scorecard said 69. The look on his face said satisfaction with a first step well taken.
“I thought I hit the ball well all day,” Woods said. “I hit a couple loose shots but I knew what I did wrong and they were easy fixes.”
That by itself is progress for Woods, who was so frustrated with his game last year that he changed his swing coaches and his swing. It started coming together for him in December at his own tournament, and the weeks of practice since helped him trust the changes even more.
Woods was long and relatively straight off the tee, even if the official stats that show him hitting just five of 14 fairways on the tight course might indicate otherwise. He also putted reasonably well, though an 18-footer for birdie he left just short on the final hole left him muttering to himself.
Woods walked off the final green five shots back of Sunghoon Kang, but that was hardly cause for worry. He’s won at Torrey Pines seven times as a pro, after all, coming from five or more shots off the pace in the first round to win four of them.
“I feel comfortable here,” he said.
With all the success Woods has had at Torrey Pines since his days in junior golf he should be. His mom was in the gallery, and if Woods needed to be reminded of happier times, Mediate was thrilled to be in his threesome.
“How good is this?” Mediate said on the 11th tee. “I’m just so excited to be out there I have to remind myself to slow down.”
Woods may not be the No. 1 player in the world anymore, but he’s still the No. 1 draw on the course and on television. The PGA Tour needs him to play well almost as badly as he needs to play well, and that he hasn’t made a bogey this year had to give hope to both.
Not that the day was a total success. Woods surely had to fight an urge to correct the announcer on the first tee when he introduced him as a five-time champion instead of six, and he didn’t manage to birdie any of the reachable par-5s.
And, despite his promise to promote a better image for the game, he let an expletive fly after hitting a shot out of a fairway bunker on his 17th hole into the rough short of the green.
Woods may not win this week, may not even be in contention when it really matters on Sunday. If he’s judged a failure for that, it’s because he was so great for so long that we expect him to do it every time.
But he’s going to win this year, if only because his will to win is so great. He may even add to his collection of majors and, at the age of 35, begin to seriously threaten the Nicklaus record once again.
The old Tiger may be gone forever. But if his first day of a new season was any indication, the new one might not be too bad.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org