PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Tiger Woods kicked off his 2012 season on the PGA Tour with a steady yet unremarkable four-under 68 in the first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He is five shots back of the leaders, Charlie Wi, Danny Lee and Dustin Johnson, a two-time winner of this event who seems to have finally solved his putting woes.
Woods started on the back nine and didn't waste any time getting under par at Spyglass Hill. His first tee ball split the fairway on the 10th, and then his approach hit the flagstick and nearly dropped in the cup. He rolled in the five-footer for birdie.
On the par-5 11th, Woods showed some of the "explosive" power he said he's regained, reaching the green in two. He missed his eagle putt but tapped in with ease for back-to-back birdies. Woods was solid the rest of the way, adding four more birdies with only two bogeys in a round that took a grueling five hours and 42 minutes. He and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo are paired for the pro-am, and they shot seven under as a team.
Woods was disappointed with his score and estimated par was equivalent to 67 on Thursday at Spyglass, where scoring conditions were perfect with sunny, 70-degree weather and little wind.
"With the scores the way they are, I thought I could have gone lower than I did," Woods said. "The guys are just tearing this place apart with no wind."
I spent the first few holes walking and talking with Woods's swing coach, Sean Foley, who agreed that Woods was happier and more relaxed this season and gave most of the credit to his clean bill of health. Foley was definitely feeling optimistic.
"I want to see him hit 72 of 72 [greens] this week," he said on the 12th after Woods made his second birdie to start the round.
Woods missed the next green to quickly dash Foley's dreams. But despite several poor iron shots, Tiger's ballstriking was solid, and he seemed confident with the swing changes he's made with Foley. So was Arjun Atwal, who also played with Woods on Thursday.
"I think [his swing] is a lot better than when he was working with Hank," Atwal said. "I played and practiced with him a lot when he was working with Hank, and even though he was winning quite a bit, his misses were a little more offline. Now his misses are pretty tight."
Romo, a plus-three handicap listed as scratch for this tournament, had his Sunday game face on but seemed a little out of his element. Spyglass Hill, the most difficult of the three-course rotation with Pebble Beach and Monterey Peninsula Country Club's Shore Course, certainly feels different from the football field. Romo looked nervous the first few holes, which was evident in his unsteady tempo.
By the time Romo reached the par-5 14th, he seemed more settled, bombing a drive down the right side of the fairway. To my surprise, he pulled 3-wood, meaning he was going for the green, which is guarded by a large pond. The only bail out is a landing strip of fairway that can't be wider than about 10 yards. Not exactly a high percentage shot. Romo didn't reach the green, but he hit a great shot and found the bottleneck area just in front.
Woods missed his birdie putt on 14, putting the pressure on Romo to make his 10-footer for the team score.
"I see inside left, what do you think?" Romo asked Tiger, who gladly stepped up and took a look at the putt from both sides of the hole before confirming his partner's read.
Romo stroked it and it dropped in for birdie. Nothing like a little teamwork.
The atmosphere on the first nine holes was relaxed and affable. Woods and Romo, along with the other pair in the foursome, Atwal and his amateur partner, Danny Lane, also a scratch player, walked from tee to green chatting and laughing.
Even Tiger's caddie, Joe LaCava, a huge Giants fan, set aside the New York-Dallas rivalry and spent most of the 15th hole engrossed in football talk with Romo.
The most peculiar sight of the day? There was a woman sitting on a pony and watching on the 16th hole. I pointed it out to Foley.
"That's like me," quipped Foley, who is about 5-foot-6. "I'm a pony."
The Kodak moment of the day came in reaction to one of Woods's most crucial shots. On the sixth hole, Woods hit a wedge to the front of the green, leaving himself 70 feet to the pin. His first lag putt came up about 12 feet short, but he rolled in the clutch putt for par. When it dropped, Woods and Romo, who was standing behind him on the fringe, simultaneously pumped their fists.
"The par putt at 6 was a key putt to keep it going," said Woods.
My main takeaways from the first round? Tiger drove the ball very well, hit his irons decently and he even rolled it pretty well — I counted at least six putts that burned the edge or just missed. Every time he picked up some momentum, however, he made a mistake to end the hope of a big run. It was a solid round, but relatively ho-hum.
Also, on his second nine, Woods made a couple of clutch putts from 12 to 15 feet, the ones that pre-hydrant era Tiger almost never missed.
Stephanie Wei is a contributor to SI Golf+ and blogger at weiunderpar.com.