WINDERMERE, Fla. — Starting with the click of a camera before he could even hit his opening tee shot, Tiger Woods received a rude reminder of what his golf has been like during a lost year due to back troubles.
He didn’t hit it close enough. When he finally did, he couldn’t make putts. He failed to break par for the 10th time in the 12 rounds he has completed since he first returned from back surgery in June. He was closer to the bottom of the pack than the top.
There was one surprise that was hardly pleasant: Woods returned to golf on Thursday, but his short game did not.
Nothing illustrated his frustration more than the par-5 13th hole, when Woods thought he was on the verge of having a short eagle putt and instead made bogey. His roll turned back from going to the top ridge near the flag and rolled off the green into a collection area. It took him three chips just to reach the green.
One was too soft, didn’t quite reach the green and rolled back toward his feet.
The next one was the ugliest one of the day, a stubbed chip from a steep swing that moved the ball only a few feet.
And when he repeated his error on the par-5 17th – only once this time – that cost him another easy birdie, he was resigned to rough start in the Hero World Challenge. Woods wound up with a 5-over 77, his worst score ever in his unofficial event, his second-highest score of the year, and a spot in last place among 18 players at Isleworth.
Welcome back, Tiger.
”One of those days where nothing went my way,” Woods said.
Alas, he still has his health, and that was the lone bright side. Woods took on any shot, perhaps the best example on the par-5 seventh when he took a powerful lash with a long iron from a severe slope on the back end of a bunker. He finished about pin-high, although in a bunker.
It took two shots to get out of the sand. And he missed the putt. Bogey.
Woods was 11 shots behind Jordan Spieth, who looked just as good in central Florida on Thursday as he did in Australia on Sunday. Spieth, coming off a six-shot win in the Australian Open, ran off five straight birdies around the turn and made sure he left Isleworth with a smile by saving par with a 12-foot putt.
”I’m excited about how last week went and I’m kind of riding the momentum,” Spieth said. ”I’m going to give it my all these last few days.”
Zach Johnson was one shot behind. He won last year at Sherwood, so maybe it’s the calendar instead of the golf course. Henrik Stenson also shot 67. He won in Dubai two weeks ago in the season-ender on the European Tour. Rickie Fowler shot 67. He narrowly missed a playoff in the World Golf Championship in Shanghai last month.
The other guy with a 67 was Steve Stricker. He hasn’t played since the PGA Championship, which if nothing else shoots a big hole in the theory that he was rusty. So was Stricker. And then there was Jason Day, who hasn’t played since the Tour Championship. He played with Woods and shot 71.
”Today was weird,” Woods said. ”I didn’t feel like I hit it that bad. My short game was awful. Didn’t make anything. … Bad chips, bad putts and a couple of missed shots on the front nine on the wrong side compounded the problem.”
It was weird for the guy watching him, too.
Day played a few holes with Woods earlier in the week and thought he was swinging it fine. He had no reason to be alarmed by the short game. But when the scores counted, he saw a different Woods with a wedge in his hand.
”It was just surprising today to see him stub a lot of chip shots,” Day said. ”That uphill into the green is very, very difficult, but to see that many out of Tiger Woods is very surprising.”
Day felt sorry for Woods, an emotion that used to be rare whenever Woods played.
”It’s just painful,” he said. ”You’re watching the guy who won 14 majors and 79 PGA Tour wins, and to do stuff like that, that’s a lot of rust there.”
Day didn’t touch a club for more than two months as he worked to get his back healthy. He was asked if there were any similarities to their games, considering both hadn’t played in some time because of injury.
”I’ve just not 14 less majors than him and about 77 less PGA Tour wins,” Day said.
Such is the perspective necessary going into Friday. It was Woods’ first round since Aug. 9 at the PGA Championship. This event offers world ranking points, but there’s really nothing to lose for anyone. And Woods still gets three more days to figure it out.