SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Tiger Woods sent a message with his one-under opening round at the PGA Championship on Thursday: Reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Coming off the worst 72-hole finish of his career at the Bridgestone Invitational, Woods rediscovered his game in the fog-delayed first round at Whistling Straits, making four birdies and three bogeys en route to a one-under 71, which easily could have been a few strokes lower. His putt from off the green on 17, his eighth hole of the day, was just one revolution short of going in the hole, and he had a couple more birdie attempts that looked in the hole before finishing just past it.
Woods was three shots behind the co-leaders. Bubba Watson and Francesco Molinari shot four-under 68s; Matt Kuchar, Ernie Els and Nick Watney were four under but did not finish their rounds. Their late finish was due to a fog delay of more than three hours. Play will resume at 8 a.m. Eastern on Friday.
“To shoot something under par was the goal today,” Woods said after his round. “I got off to a quick start and all of a sudden I felt like I could shoot something in the 60s. It didn’t quite happen. I lost a few shots out there, but I made a nice birdie on nine and finished under par for the day.”
Woods practiced more than usual at Whistling Straits this week after his poor performance at the Bridgestone, doing drills to keep his head still with caddie Steve Williams. However, he said there was no ready explanation for the difference between last week’s duck-and-cover rounds at Firestone and his confident, controlled play at Whistling Straits.
“That’s just the way it goes,” Woods said. “Everyone has bad weeks.”
Woods did acknowledge that his putting improved this week. While he didn’t make any long birdie putts, he left himself a lot of tap-in pars
“I hit good putts, but my speed, what I was seeing, the greens look faster than what they are rolling,” Woods said. “It’s hard to make yourself hit the ball harder, for me, anyways. I hit a lot of good putts right on my lines, but they were just a little bit lacking in speed.”
He got off to a fast start with birdies on his first, second and fourth holes. (He, Yang and Singh started on No. 10.) After that torrid beginning, Woods’s round was a grind familiar to anyone who’s watched his play at majors this year. He made three bogeys, including a brutal stretch on the par-5 second (Woods’s 11th) where he drove into a left-side bunker, then punched an iron shot into the right-side gallery, and finally ended in a greenside bunker so far from the green it might have been decorative. Woods looked relieved when he made his birdie putt on his final hole after splitting the fairway on No. 9 and hitting a high, soft iron to six feet.
“I played too good not to shoot under par, and it would have been very disappointing and frustrating to end up at even par as well as I played today,” Woods said. “When the wind blows like this, you can’t just hit the ball in the air and all over the place. I felt like I was driving the ball and controlling it both ways.”
Phil Mickelson also bounced back from a disappointing Sunday at the Bridgestone, where he shot 78 and missed a chance to take over the No. 1 spot in the World Ranking. He didn’t tee off until after 5:30, but he was tied with Woods at one under after 11 holes and finished his day with two straight birdies.
After a middling front nine, Mickelson’s birdie on the par-4 10th hole was remarkable. He missed his drive way left, off a deep ridge toward Minnesota, but managed to get an iron onto the green and drained a 15-footer for birdie.
Mickelson missed his drive on the next hole as well, landing in a right-side bunker on the 618-yard, par-5 11th, but he advanced his ball enough to have a short iron in. He hit his approach to tap-in distance just as the horn sounded to stop play. He putted out with playing partners and fellow 2010 major winners Graeme McDowell (two over) and Louis Oosthuizan (even).
“I feel a lot better than I felt after nine,” Mickelson said as he got into a courtesy van and left the course.
Woods played with two other former PGA Championship winners, Vijay Singh and Y.E. Yang. Singh won the PGA Championship the last time it was played at Whistling Straits, in 2004, and Yang famously upset Woods last year at Hazetline in Minnesota. The three chatted and laughed during frequent waits on the tee box during the almost five-and-a-half hour round. Singh finished one over and Yang was even par.
While Woods is still just 34, the names at the top of the leaderboard made his group look geriatric (Yang is 38 and Singh is 47). In addition to Kuchar (32), Watson (31), Watney (29) and Molinari (27) at four under, Charles Howell III (31), Ryan Moore (27) and Jason Day (22) all finished at three under. However, some of the veterans made a late-afternoon charge in abbreviated rounds, including Els and Darren Clarke, who was three under through 13.
But the key name on the leaderboard was Woods, who once again confounded the experts by playing well in a major despite his dismal play at regular Tour stops in his scandal-scarred year. (He finished T4 at the U.S. Open and the Masters, and T22 at the British Open.) Afterward Woods sounded like he might have even confounded himself.
Asked how he goes from shooting 77 and finishing close to dead last on Sunday to finding himself in the mix at a major on Thursday, Woods said, “Welcome to golf. It is what it is. Guys shoot 59 and don’t win. Fickle game.”