DUBLIN, Ohio — What does Tiger Woods call a guy who stripes it on the range but can’t take that A-Game to the golf course?
Oh, yeah. A Ranger Rick.
Unfortunately, Woods played the Ranger Rick role on his first nine at the Memorial Tournament. Rick — er, Tiger, bogeyed three of the first four holes on Muirfield Village’s back nine, spraying drives in both directions. He rallied with a couple of birdies but concluded a disastrous start by hitting a drive out of bounds at the 18th hole.
Wait. There’s out of bounds at Muirfield Village’s 18th hole? This was practically a state secret, but yes, there’s OB if you hit it far enough right. Like, right of Vladimir Putin.
Ranger Rick went back to the range on the second nine and someone who resembled the real Tiger returned, making three birdies and a few nice par saves to salvage a one-over-par 73. Not a bad recovery, but the problem is, there was barely a breath of wind at Muirfield Village on a pleasant morning, the greens were fast and receptive and as Brendon Todd, one of four morning-wave players who shot 67 noted, “It was as easy as it ever gets here.”
The reports were that Woods was hitting it well in the practice rounds, and in fact played pretty well early in the week when he studiously played U.S. Open site Chambers Bay twice on a recon patrol. Thursday morning, however, he struggled in his warm-up session and on the opening nine.
“I didn’t play very good today at all,” Woods grumbled after his round. “I didn’t have much. I need to work on it. But I fought hard to get back and to get it back on a course like that, it was pretty good work.
The statistics were not pretty. Woods hit only four fairways and nine greens and had two penalty strokes. Viewed from the glass-half-full perspective, 73 was pretty darned good. From the glass-half-empty easiest scoring conditions you’re going to get all week perspective, 73 was disappointing.
There were several nominees for the Ranger Rick Worst Shot of the Day on Tiger’s card. Let’s start with his second hole, the par-5 11th. Woods actually pounded a 330-yard drive down the fairway and was clearly in the go-zone. Then he hit an awful 3-iron that was so bad that it went into the water guarding the front of the green… on the bounce. Making bogey on a reachable par-5 is like a two-shot penalty.
Then there was the drive at the 18th. It was Radio Station WTFR which, in golfspeak, stands for Way The Heck Right.
“I can hit it either way,” he said. “I’ve got to fix it. Unfortunately, it’s part of the process.”
Asked what he was muttering to himself after he walked off the 18th green with a double, Woods said, “I just grinded, that’s all I did. I was just trying to stay committed to what we’re working on. I hit it awful, yeah. So what? I was going to go through this phase and stick with it. Some of the shots I hit were really, really good, but I also had some really bad shots, too. We need to work on that to omit the bad ones.”
Woods said he and coach Chris Como have been tweaking his swing for a while now, one of the reasons Woods has played sparingly since the Masters.
“It’s a little bit different move we’re working on since The Players,” Woods said. “It’s nice to get out here and test it and see what it’s like. But I need a little work and to keep progression. I’ll try go get it to peak at the right time.”
Tiger’s short game and putting looked solid, as did most of his iron play. He hit it to six feet and five feet for birdies at 14 and 16. He punched out of the left trees at No. 1 and saved par with a five-foot putt.
He made a 20-footer for birdie at the second hole, saved par at the par-5 fifth after driving it through the fairway left, holed a 16-foot birdie putt at No. 6 and birdied the par-5 seventh after laying up out of the rough.
“Physically, I feel good,” Woods said. “Mentally, I feel beat up. That grind is so hard. To turn that round around like I did today. I mean, I bogeyed 17 and doubled 18, then I rip it off No. 1. And I shoot three under par, and that was hard.”
Contending doesn’t seem like it’s in the picture for Woods this week. He’s got a more pressing issue, which is to adapt to a swing change that’s still a work in progress. This, Woods assured, is a familiar process for him. It’s not his first rodeo, or his first swing restructuring.
“I’ve gone through phases like this in the past where, yeah, it’s easy to revert back and go ahead and hit some old patter, but it doesn’t do you any good going forward,” he said. “I’ve done it, sometimes it’s taken me about a year and then it kicked in and I did pretty well after that. And subsequent years, I did the same thing.
“Got to suck it up. If you believe in it, do it, and eventually it will start turning. I’ve had periods where I’ve played good for four or five years, where I’ve won close to 20 tournaments in that stretch.”
Woods veered toward a history lesson all of a sudden. The only problem with that is, that history is bordering on ancient in golf time. Woods hasn’t won a major since 2008, nor has he physically been the same since then due to knee and back surgeries. Plus he suffered mental trauma in late 2009 with a sex scandal, public apology and subsequent expensive divorce that marred his brand.
This Tiger is pushing 40. He hits that magic number later this year. But he’s still got the memories of how he used to do it and the champion’s necessary confidence that with enough work, he can do it again.
“I’m excited about the fact that I stuck at it and I turned that round around,” Woods said. “I’m frustrated with the fact that I didn’t hit it like I did either yesterday or warming up this morning. I definitely need to go fix that.”
In short, Woods thinks he’s close — he always does. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. Only Ranger Rick knows for sure.