AKRON, Ohio — The crowd poured down the gallery ropes along the first fairway by the thousands. Tiger Woods was back and he’d just hit his opening tee shot into the right fairway bunker.
There was huge applause on the tee when Woods and Darren Clarke were introduced, and there was scattered applause and enthusiastic shout-outs as they walked the gauntlet between the grandstands toward the fairway.
A man wearing a red WGC-logoed cap walked with his son and a friend, lugging a plastic bag containing souvenir caps and shirts.
“He’s still 99.9 percent loved, isn’t he?” the man told his friend after hearing the gallery’s reaction to Woods. “Golf needs him.”
His friend nodded in agreement. “It’s like that Stallings guy last week,” Red Hat continued. “He’s a good story but just not memorable.”
His buddy turned and said, “So why haven’t you got your application in to be Tiger’s caddie?”
Red Hat laughed. “Good question,” he answered. “He probably can’t afford me now.”
So Tiger’s return to golf was official after almost three months in which he missed two major championships, and he had a pretty good day, especially with the putter. Woods shot 68, two under par, thanks to three birdies on the back nine after nine straight pars on the front. He probably played better than some people expected. Give him a solid B, maybe even a B-plus.
Adam Scott leads after an eight-under 62. Woods’s old caddie, Steve Williams, is now on Scott’s bag full time.
Now, let’s talk about those nagging Tiger questions:
How’s his knee?
It looked fine. Tiger didn’t appear to walk with any limp. His gait is measured, as it has been for some time, but he no longer looked like a man trying to disguise a bad wheel. When he bent down to line up a putt, Tiger squatted without hesitation. The knee didn’t appear to be a problem.
How’s he look?
Leaner. Still strong. He looks a bit thinner or maybe just a bit less muscular. To be honest, he looks great. Two years ago, he looked almost too muscular. A member of his camp said Tiger does, indeed, feel great and his knee is great, he’s not just saying it this time.
How’s his swing?
Good. His swing wasn’t great on the front nine, but it looked fine. He lost several shots right but not very far right. And with Firestone Country Club’s narrow fairways, it doesn’t take much to miss. Tiger’s misses were pretty close to the fairway on the first nine. He hit only five of 14 fairways but found 12 of 18 greens in regulation.
How’s his putting?
It looks good. This is the most important club in Tiger’s comeback, or whatever you want to call it. Spotty putting, which is the opposite of what Tiger did in the past, cost him a chance to win the last two Masters. Woods made three clutch par-saving putts on the opening nine, then drained a pair of short birdie putts to start the back. His putting stroke was the most optimistic thing we’ve seen from him since the Masters. He made some excellent putts on the back, dare we say like the Tiger of old? Maybe Hunter Mahan was right Wednesday when he used the word “scary” to describe Tiger’s return.
Woods seemed very pleased after his round. By his stark standards, he was almost giddy. His distance control problems today stemmed from hitting it too solid, a nice problem to have.
“As Darren would say, I was hitting proper shots out there,” Woods said. “The amount of progress I made in my golf swing, the amount of compression I had in the golf ball, the shots I was hitting, I hadn’t hit the ball like this. This was fun, to be able to hit the ball with that much flush. It was pretty nice.
“My swing was more of a wipey swing, just kind of wiping it out there so I wasn’t getting a full transfer of energy. Now I’m swinging easier. I am not even hitting it hard yet and that’s what’s fun. I’m hitting it farther without any more effort. Today, some of the drives I hit out there, I got my power back.”
He was also pleased about how he handled his return after the long absence.
“You know, I felt nervous out there on that first tee just like I did when I came back off long layoffs after the winter, or the surgeries I’ve had over the years,” Woods said. “That first tee shot, I was pretty nervous. It felt awesome.”
His start was uneven. From the fairway bunker at the first, Woods hit an iron shot to the green and two-putted for par. Clarke, his playing companion and newly minted British Open champ, didn’t get his bunker shot to the green and made bogey. They found fairway bunkers on the par-5 second hole, too. Clarke hit a nice recovery shot while Woods caught a little too much sand with his, advancing it only about 100 yards. Tiger’s third shot didn’t get close and he two-putted for another par.
He found his first fairway at the third hole and hit what appeared to be a decent approach shot but it flew the green. Tiger’s chip raced across the green, perhaps grazing the cup’s edge, and went all the way to the front fringe. He then poured in a 25-foot putt for par and drew the day’s first big roar.
There was another nice ovation when he played a shot in close to six feet at the par-3 fifth. He made a good stroke but the putt slid right and rolled past the hole. He settled for par.
Tiger’s approach went long at the sixth hole, too. As soon as he struck the shot, Tiger shouted, “Bite! Bite! Gol, come down!” “Gol” must be short for golly. The ball stopped on the back of the green, leaving him a slick, downhill, double-breaking putt. His first putt drifted five feet past but he made the comebacker for another par.
The highlight of the opening nine came at the eighth hole, where Clarke holed his approach shot from 184 yards for an eagle, drawing a big roar. A woman wearing a straw hat behind the green asked her friend, “What happened? Did it go in? Aww, we were here and we missed it!” She looked up toward the sky and added, “Well, the MetLife blimp saw it.”
As Woods played his approach from the left rough, she said, “Choke on that, Tiger.”
Woods pulled his approach into the deep left bunker, flopped a shot onto the green and watched his ball roll to seven feet. Woods rolled the par putt in and Clarke, who’d curiously been holding the pin instead of his caddie, made a remark that made Woods smile. Clarke held out his left hand and Woods gave it a celebratory slap.
Woods showed his first bit of emotion on the ninth green, doing a nice fist thrust as he rolled in a 15-footer to save par.
Maybe that got the rust off because he hit it close at the short 10th, making a five-footer for birdie. At No. 11, he played a nice approach and holed a putt from eight feet for birdie. Suddenly, he was two under par, a good place to be on a warm, humid and mostly calm day where soft greens led to low scoring, at least by Firestone standards.
At the 14th, Tiger found himself in the back bunker. His bunker shot caught the deep rough before bouncing onto the fringe. It was one good bounce away from getting close. He narrowly missed the 14-foot par try. It was his first bogey of the round.
Another Tiger moment came at the 16th, the downhill par-5 over the pond. Woods hung his drive out in the right trees and had to play a big slice with his hybrid. Woods, aiming toward the left rough, took a mighty lash at the ball and his right foot and leg came up on his follow through as he tried to make sure he carved the shot left to right. He pulled it off perfectly and the fans, excited to see Tiger’s histrionics, rewarded him with a loud roar as he stalked down the fairway after the ball.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tiger moment if he didn’t make birdie after a theatrical shot. After a poor wedge shot that carried to the back of the green, Tiger’s 30-foot birdie putt crawled into the cup and he raised the putter in his left hand in triumph. He also smiled for one of the few times during the round.
“I expect myself to be more prepared tomorrow,” Woods said. “I’ve got the competitive feel now. I know what it feels like to get into the flow of the round and the flow of playing tournament golf, which is way different than zipping around in shorts and a cart.
“It’s progress, it’s a progression,” he said. “You take it step by step.”