NORTON, Mass. (AP) – Tiger Woods had his lowest opening round in three years Friday in the Deutsche Bank Championship. It still wasn’t enough to be low man in Sean Foley’s coaching stable.
Seung-yul Noh, a rising star from South Korea in his first season on the PGA Tour, ran off four straight birdies early in his round and closed with back-to-back birdies on the TPC Boston for a 9-under 62.
That gave him a one-shot lead over Chris Kirk, whose 23 putts included an eagle on the new 18th hole.
Woods wasn’t too shabby. He stirred up a big gallery on a glorious summer day in New England with six straight birdies, which featured four putts of at least 12 feet and flop shot executed so perfectly that it cleared a steep bunker and landed in an area of the green no larger than a hula hoop. His lone bogey on the final hole gave him a 7-under 64, putting him in a three-way tie for third with Jeff Overton and Ryan Moore.
The average score was just under 70 on a perfect day for scoring, except for the deceptive wind that swirled through the trees.
Rory McIlroy struggled off the tee, though he judged one of the lies in the rough beautifully on the ninth hole, a 7-iron into tap-in range that led to a 65.
Noh stole the show, even if hardly anyone was paying attention or was not really sure who he was.
“Some people say Kevin Na, like, `Go Kevin,”’ Noh said.
The 21-year-old from South Korea won his first Asian Tour title at age 17, and he chose to come over to America this year to ease his travel. He made it through Q-school in December, and on Friday turned in his strongest PGA Tour round to date.
“Everything good today,” Noh said.
He went to work with Foley in May, mentioning the roster of clients as one of his reasons – Woods, Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose.
“He’s a good kid,” Mahan said after a much-needed 68. “If Foley says, `Do this 1,000 times,’ he’ll go home and do it 1,000 times.”
The start was more meaningful for Overton, whose game has practically disappeared since he played on the Ryder Cup team two years ago. He is No. 83 in the FedEx Cup standings, and only the top 70 advance next week to the third playoff event at Crooked Stick in Indiana – his home state.
“I’m constantly getting a lot of great text messages and people say, `Hey, we’re really excited to see you at Crooked Stick,’ just the whole Hoosier nation,” Overton said. “It’s just going to be fun if I can get into the event.”
He had his own birdie streak, only on the opposite end of the course from Woods. Overton made five straight birdies through the 16th hole, and then added one more birdie on the 18th hole for a 64 that put him atop the leaderboard with Woods from the morning session.
Woods played with Barclays winner Nick Watney and Brandt Snedeker, two players who are trying to make enough of an impression on Davis Love III to be selected as Ryder Cup captain’s picks on Tuesday. Snedeker scrambled his way to a respectable 69. Watney, who has never finished higher than 33rd on the TPC Boston, never looked comfortable in his round of 72.
Dustin Johnson, another candidate to get one of the four Ryder Cup selections, opened with a 67.
Rickie Fowler overcame a rugged start to salvage a 71. Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker, likely to get two of the picks, each had a 69.
Getting off to a good start is nothing new for Woods. This was the 14th time in 18 tournaments this year that he was at par or better. Lately, it’s been about the finishes. Even though Woods has won three times this year – the most of anyone on the PGA Tour – he has turned in some peculiar weekends. Twice he was tied for the lead at majors going into the final two rounds and stumbled. Last week at Bethpage Black, he had a 72-76 weekend to drop into the middle of the pack.
Woods doesn’t seem bothered by all this. He attributed last week to extreme conditions on the greens at Bethpage in the third round, and a final round that simply got away from him on a three-hole stretch on the back nine.
“It wasn’t like I was hitting a lot of awful shots,” he said. “I just needed a couple putts to go my way, and it didn’t happen. I should be right around par, and it turns into an over-par round. Today was about the same as I have been playing pretty much all summer, just go out there and playing pretty consistent. It was just a nice, solid round.”
There was a stretch when it all looked so easy.
Woods hit a full swing, flop shot behind the 12th green to a few feet away to save par, the only time he was seriously in trouble. He hit a high cut with a 5-iron to a tough pin on the par-3 11th for birdie from 15 feet, and he holed an 18-foot birdie putt on the 13th.
The streak began with a 6-iron to the middle of the 18th green for a two-putt birdie. He rolled in birdie putts from the 12-foot to 18-foot range on the next three holes, and while he nearly holed out with a wedge on No. 5, his best work came at the 293-yard fourth hole.
Woods can reach the green with a 3-wood, but he felt the wind gust into his face, and opted for a driver, playing for a baby cut to take off some distance and get it into the front bunker for a relatively easy up-and-down. Instead, it came a yard short of the sand, and he had to play a high flop to a tiny section of the green that ran away from him.
“I had to play an all-out shot to try to keep it on the green,” he said. “I went for it, and it came off.”
His bid for a seventh straight birdie – the last time he had a streak that long was the third round at the 2005 Masters that carried into Sunday morning – was a 12-footer up the hill on the sixth hole. He took a step toward the hole as the ball was a foot away, sure it was going to drop, and stopped in his tracks as the ball turned slightly to the left. He spun around and removed his cap in disbelief.
As many as he was making, perhaps it was a shock to see one miss.
“Unfortunately, it just wiggled about a half-ball left, where I thought it was going to wiggle about a half-ball right,” he said.
The round ended on a sour note, with a 7-iron as the wind briefly died. The ball went into the collar of the green, sitting down just enough that he tried to swing hard enough to generate speed and spin the ball. It didn’t work out, and the chip ran 12 feet by. He missed for his only bogey, and tossed his putter at the bag in disgust. Anyone who had not seen the previous 17 holes might have thought it was another tough day at the office.
Instead, it was his lowest score since a 64 in the opening round of the 2009 AT&T National at Congressional.