Tiger Woods made news at the AT&T National on Thursday simply by showing up. During a week when most of the world's best golfers are on their couches at home or on a wondrous links in Northern Ireland, Woods brought some much-needed star power to Congressional Country Club. Alas, Woods failed to bring along his A-game, as he carded a sloppy one-over-par 72 that left him in 30th place, five strokes behind leader Bo Van Pelt.
After the round Woods offered a quasi-positive spin, saying 72 was the worst score he could have shot. He chalked up his middling score not to user error but to an exacting course setup. "It was a pretty good grind out there," he said. "It was tough, it was baked-out, the ball was springy. It's hard to believe four under is leading."
As the tournament host, Woods has a voice — but not the final say — in how the course is presented. Like a lot of others, he sees some cause and effect with this brutal setup and Rory McIlory's record score of 16 under at last year's U.S. Open on a defenseless, rain-softened Congressional. "This is certainly a little retribution for last year," Woods said. With a chuckle, he added,"Don't get mad at me, I didn't play [due to injury]."
Woods is finally healthy and has had enough reps to master his traj and avoid wipey mis-hits. It's a process, we know, but his game remains maddeningly inconsistent. He has been brilliant during two tournament victories but laid eggs at the only tournaments that really matter, the Masters and the U.S. Open. During the first round at Congressional, he periodically struck the ball with authority but was undone by little mistakes. For the day, he hit only seven fairways and 11 greens and went oh-fer on sand saves. Afterward Woods said, "My 60 [degree wedge] is not designed for this type of sand. There's so much sand in these bunkers. My 60 is not built for this much sand, it's not designed for that."
That's interesting, because on a different coast in different sand his bunker play was also abysmal at the U.S. Open. Woods's curious explanation inspired a #dogatemyhomework hashtag on Twitter.
Of course, sand save percentage — Woods is 97th on Tour this year — is often a referendum on short putting, and Woods's putter didn't help him on Thursday, as he repeatedly failed to capitalize on birdie chances while making four momentum-sapping bogies. In his pre-tournament press conference, Woods admitted that his short game has "taken a hit" as he's labored for the last two years to master swing changes under Sean Foley. Noting a similar ebb and flow to his game under Butch Harmon and Hank Haney, Woods said, "Eventually I get to a point where the full game becomes very natural feeling and I can repeat it day after day, and I can dedicate most of my time to my short game again."
Fair enough, but Woods knows the scorecard has no room for excuses. Friday morning he'll have a chance to improve on his 72, playing Congressional before it gets dried out by the scorching afternoon heat.
After the first round, Woods blamed a few of his control problems on how easily his ball ripped through the hot air. "The numbers today were ridiculous how far we were hitting it," he said.
That's Tiger in a nutshell — even when he's hitting it great, things are just a little bit off.