CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Quest for the Holy Quail, my nominee as the title to replace the Quail Hollow Championship, did not go well Thursday for Tiger Woods.
It was only one round, one day, but the bad news for Tiger followers was that he picked up where he left off — in the rough, in the trees, in the water. When last seen, Woods played some of his sloppiest shots on the weekend at the Masters, completely out of character for the 14-major-championship Tiger that we know. His swing was still clearly out of order Thursday, especially on his first nine holes. If his short game had not been magnificent, 80 would have been in his wheelhouse.
With some stellar scrambling, he was able to overcome three bogeys and a double in his first 10 holes to shoot 74, two over par, and avoid shooting himself out of contention. From where he hit it, that was a remarkable score.
The day had a movie-set beginning. It was another bright, clear, crisp morning — cold enough to see your breath. The sun filtered through the pines as Woods prepared for his opening drive on No. 10. His caddie, Steve Williams, exhaled and the steam of his breath drifted from the shade into the sunlight like a special effect. Left of the green, a fog rose eerily off the lake.
Woods tore a page out of the Phil Mickelson playbook on that par-5 opening hole. He banged a driver down the fairway — a rare occurrence, it turned out — smashed a 3-wood near the green and played a delicate flop shot to within a foot of a tough pin placement. Easy birdie, followed by nothing easy the rest of the nine. Or the rest of the day, for that matter.
“I had a two-way miss going all day, which was great,” Woods said later, showing some sarcasm. “I didn’t hit the ball very good at all. Two balls in the water and pretty much struggled all day. I had a lot of issues trying to figure out where my balls were going to go. I hit a bunch of balls left, a bunch of balls right and a few down the middle. That was about it.”
The new and relaxed Woods? Well, maybe it was one of those days that all you can do is laugh it off. Woods was frustrated, obviously, but when asked if he was going to the range to try to solve his swing issues, he said, “I’m not going to the range today. Hell with it.”
At the 11th, Woods tried to carve a draw with his 5-wood tee shot and succeeded only too well, getting a break when his ball ended up in the rough a few feet short of a fairway bunker. Still, he was blocked by a tree and had to chip a low shot down the fairway. From there, he flipped a 40-yard pitch shot to within two feet and cashed a par.
The next hole was nearly an instant replay. A 5-wood into the left rough, blocked by a tree. The ball was sitting down slightly in dew-covered rough and Woods was looking right into the morning sun with the shot. He punched another beauty, shouted, “Run!” and then walked with his head down after it, knowing it had come up short. It led to another 40-yard flop shot played to perfection, although the ball ran out some 12 feet past the pin and he missed the putt. Bogey.
On the par-3 13th, Woods played a good iron shot to 12 feet for birdie but had a slick downhill putt. “C’mawn, git one back, Big Tee,” a chubby fan wearing a maroon ball cap said. Big Tee? That’s a new one. Big Tee’s putt broke across the hole and missed on the left edge. Par.
A mediocre wedge approach at the short 14th left him a 25-footer for birdie, which he missed. He finished his tee shot at the par-5 15th with a one-hand follow-through, which usually means he lost the shot to the right. This one ended up in pine straw behind a pair of trees. With no apparent shot, Woods bravely punched out through a tiny opening, a shot so amazing that fans came over to check it out, and so did a photographer, who took a shot of the divot. You could see where Woods had disturbed the pine straw. There was slight trench, followed by some straw sticking straight up.
The second shot ended up closer to the pond than Woods would’ve liked, and through the fairway. He still had 186 yards to the pin; playing for a fade, he pulled his approach into the left bunker. He played a spectacular long bunker shot to eight feet and holed the putt for a fighting par that was emblematic of his day.
At the 16th, Cink had to chip out from underneath a tree in the left rough. His ball ended up there after conking a man in the head. “And I was standing behind this tree,” the man said as he was handed a blue surgical glove filled with cold water to use as a compress.
“I hear Cink has a crummy attorney,” a passer-by joked. “I think you can take him down on this.”
Woods was also in the left rough, just past the tree that snared Cink, and actually had a shot to a front-left pin position. He’d barely finished his follow-through, though, when he yelled, “Fore!” Consider that word his new favorite f-bomb. His ball missed the green left, leaving him short-sided, but he deftly chipped close for another par save.
Then came the three holes that ripped up his carefully constructed house of cards. He made a stuck, god-awful swing on the tee at 17, a dangerous, water-guarded par-3. He hated the shot the second it left the clubface because he knew it was wet. He took relief on the forward tee and hit a shot pin-high, two-putting for a double bogey. At 18, he yanked his tee ball left and splashed it into the stream that guards the left side. He dropped near the stream, hit a nice-looking iron approach to a front left pin and watched it come up short of the green. Another deft pitch-and-run left him three feet for bogey.
At the first hole, even more late-arriving fans joined the gallery of several thousand following the group. Some college-aged kids walking along the ropes asked aloud, “Where’s Tiger”? Then they looked across the fairway and spotted Woods, who was way, way right and in the middle of a forest of trees.
Woods took aim at the green from his area of deep shade, an unlikely play, but if Woods can see it, he can do it. He sent a low liner through and beneath the tree limbs, bouncing it near the green and avoiding the bunker. It rolled off the back left edge of the green. His pitch nearly caught a piece of the cup, but a sharp incline caused it to roll eight feet past. It would have been yet another crazy par, but Woods missed the putt and dropped to four over.
From there Woods settled down, managing a front-nine 35 that included a nice birdie putt on the par-3 second hole and a two-putt birdie on the par-5 fifth. He added one more birdie at 17 and a bogey at 18 to finish with 74.