Tiger Woods has become the Forrest Gump of golf: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
On Thursday in the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic, Woods unwrapped four birdies, three bogeys, one double-bogey, one eagle and nine pars to give himself a dizzy headache after a one-under-par 71. He nailed an eagle on the final hole after firing a 3-wood to eight feet from 254 yards to send him up the leaderboard from the cut line to T27, six shots behind leader Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy’s brilliant play overshadowed the marquee Big Three group, which paired No. 1-ranked Lee Westwood, No. 2-ranked Martin Kaymer and No. 3-ranked Woods. Don’t forget about wee me, said McIlroy’s seven-under-par 65. Westwood and Kaymer posted three-under-par 69s.
The Big Three met on the first tee at the Emirates Golf Club shortly after High Noon local time. But if you expected a tense shootout with game faces, intimidating handshakes and a prickly atmosphere, you were in for a surprise. Westwood, Kaymer and Woods were cordial and chatty, just three amigos setting out for a stroll in the desert.
Remember when Woods’ driver used to make a fizzing sound that no other golfer could replicate? Now it goes clunk more often than fizz. On the first tee, he got away with one, but his putter let him down and he missed a par putt from four feet. Bogey-and immediately on his back foot as Westwood and Kaymer made solid pars. Woods took an iron for safety off the tee at the second, but still missed the fairway. On the third hole, Woods missed a birdie putt from eight feet. He missed again at the fourth—from three feet—for bogey. With every part of Woods’s game misfiring, it felt like even the grass was taunting him. The Majilis Course has been set up with thinly cut fairways, thick claggy rough like overcooked spinach, and pin positions leading to downhill sliders. Not the ideal recipe for someone struggling with their game.
Woods has always preferred to speak softly and carry a big stick, intimidating rivals with his athleticism and power, not his words. But he is more Clark Kent than Superman these days. His agent Mark Steinberg trailed his man from behind the ropes, chugging a power drink. Maybe he should have given it his client. When Woods trudged up the hill at the fifth carrying his driver, he looked like a tired old man with a walking stick. He had no zest, no energy. He was limping, too. “I’m getting older,” he said after his round, managing to raise a smile.
Meanwhile, Westwood was smiling and bounding up the fairway. Kaymer was in his “Germanator” mode where nothing seems to distract him. Woods, meanwhile, looked in turmoil, shaking his head and fighting his swing.
But the one thing Woods wouldn’t do is quit. Even at his most frustrated, you could see that he was trying his heart out. On the sixth hole, a fan yelled out the first “great shot, Tiger!” of the day, and Woods rolled in a curling 12-footer. Birdie. And hope. But he threw it away at the par-3 seventh—his ball landing short and spinning back into the water. Bogey. Hopeless.
The eighth tee is set against a fabulous backdrop of downtown Dubai with its skyscrapers glistening in the afternoon sun like giant silver pencils. The skyline looks like Manhattan in the desert, complete with a replica of the Chrysler Building. Make that two Chrysler Buildings. Imitation, as the saying goes, is the sincerest form of flattery.
Down on the golf course, Kaymer was looking every inch like the new Tiger. On the eighth tee, he lashed a drive that split the fairway and caused a collective intake of breath from the gallery. Kaymer’s power is not violent like Woods’s used to be. It’s all controlled rhythm and timing. Kaymer swung so fast through the ball, you could see the shaft of his driver bend and strain on his follow-through. Then Woods sent a weak slice high and wide into the desert. He missed the fairway by 20 yards, just a yard more off-line would have placed him in the middle of a wiry bush. All day long Woods had been battling to keep a lid on his anger. It exploded in an F-bomb on the tee.
The contrast couldn’t have been starker. The Germanator looked unflappable, and Woods looked like a poor imitation of his former self. “I fought hard,” he said afterward. “I missed every putt. They were just terrible.” He littered his post-round chat with words like “awful,” “struggled,” “no idea,” and “scratchy.”
But Woods still has two things going for him: instinct and luck. First, he got lucky coming up short of that bush with his tee shot at the eighth, and then the putts started to drop on the back nine, with back-to-back birdies on 10 and 11. What changed? “If I knew, I’d tell you,” Woods said. “I just felt comfortable all of a sudden and boom, I started pouring them in.”
Once Woods stropped tinkering with his technique, familiar flashes of genius filtered through those clouds of self-doubt. His game is still there behind the clutter of new swing thoughts and rust from his lengthy layoff last year, and fans got a glimpse of the old Tiger on the finishing hole.
Just as it seemed he would be the forgotten man in the Big Three group Thursday, Woods stole the show at the 18th. Bish, bash, bosh, eagle. Just like the glory days. “Hopefully I can do the same thing tomorrow,” Woods said. But will it be the coffee cream or the chocolate Ã©clair?