PARAMUS, N.J. — Tiger Woods was standing in the rain on Wednesday, a few paces from the Ridgewood Country Club clubhouse, and the rings under his eyes showed the strain he felt inside. People magazine had just published the first interview given by Elin Nordegren since Tiger’s car accident last November. On Monday, their divorce was finalized.
But the haggard look was gone on Thursday morning at the Barclays—as were the clouds and wind—when Tiger hit his first tournament tee shot as a single man since 2004. It was also the first time in his pro career that he hit the opening tee shot of a tournament; Woods was first off Thursday at 7:10 a.m.
That 3-wood shot, a slight draw that landed in the middle of the fairway, was a harbinger of good things to come for Woods. It was the first step in the best round Tiger has shot in 2010, a six-under 65.
“I just played today,” Woods said, standing at the same podium where a day before he admitted that at times his off-course problems had made it hard for him to concentrate on golf.
“I went out and played, made a few tweaks on the range with my swing. I started off warming up not very good at all. I was hitting it all over the lot, but made a couple of tweaks and found what I have been working on. I just told Steve I’m going to be committed to it all day.”
That commitment and that 3-wood put Tiger in the fairway on 13 of 14 holes and helped him hit 15 of 18 greens.
“It’s exciting to hit the ball flush like this again,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been missing all year. It felt good to hit the ball and shape it both ways and really hit it thought the wind.”
After birdies at the first and third holes, Woods’s round got into high gear at the 291-yard, par-4 fifth. With 271 yards to the front edge of the green, Tiger faded a driver up the hill. His shot landed pin-high and stopped quickly on the damp green, rolling just a few feet past its pitch mark. ['It was a really good shot,' he said later.] Although he left the eagle putt about two inches short, the tap-in birdie took Woods to three under par through five holes and got the crowd excited.
But that would be the last time Tiger would reach for his driver until the 18th tee.
“Today with the conditions, I just felt that for me 3-wood was getting to all the corners,” he said. “With driver I actually had to take it over some of the corners. I didn’t feel comfortable taking it over the corners.”
On a wet day when lift, clean and place was in effect, staying out of the rough was a big part of Woods’s strategy.
“With ball in hand, it is more important to hit the ball in the fairway,” Woods said. “Even if on some holes I had a 3- or 4-iron into greens, it really didn’t matter. The greens were soft.”
Woods only hit two loose shots all day. The first was a mid-iron approach from the fairway on the 11th hole that he pulled into a greenside bunker. That error was erased by a routine up-and-down from the sand that saved par.
The second bad shot—also an iron approach shot from the fairway—found another greenside bunker on the left side, this time at the 12th green. Tiger’s long sand shot rolled past the hole and through the green. When his chip to save par lipped out, the huge crowd around the green groaned.
But that bogey would be the only blemish on Woods’s card, and he followed it with birdies on 13 and 14. Woods closed with a birdie on 18 after hitting what he called his best shot of the day, a faded driver that was followed by a 7-iron shot to about 10 feet.
A fan who followed Tiger for several holes repeatedly shouted, “Believe you can win this. Believe!”
It would be tempting to read too much into today’s 65. It was just one round of golf, and Tiger had the advantage of playing in conditions that pros dream about. Still, it was very clear that Woods was happy with what he accomplished.
Typically at the end of press conferences, players are asked about clubs they used and key distances on holes where they made birdies and bogies. It’s a signal that no more questions are going to be answered. But Woods cheerfully answered nine more questions after the club-and-distance session.
What a difference a day makes.