SAN MARTIN, Calif. — Well, it was fun for one hole.
Tiger Woods returned to the PGA Tour on Thursday for the most anticipated round in the history of the Fall Series. In the two months since we last saw Woods — a hard-to-watch missed cut at the PGA Championship — he had generated more news away from the Tour than most players make in their career. A controversial selection to the Presidents Cup team, a new caddie (Joe LaCava) and, at long last, a new endorsement deal (Rolex) heightened the intrigue surrounding his return to action, but it was Woods’s much-discussed, course-record 62 last week at Medalist Golf Club that hinted that Tiger’s game might finally be falling into place after two years of scandal, malaise and injury. On the first hole of Frys.com Open he smoked a drive and played a perfect second shot for a kick-in birdie, and the record crowd at CordeValle Golf Club was in full throat.
In announcing the Rolex deal, Woods’s agent Mark Steinberg captured why his client remains the most riveting figure in sports despite middling play. “Our culture says we like dynasties and that we also like underdogs,” Steinberg told writer Thomas Bonk. “Tiger is as good a dynasty as there’s been in sports for, what, 13 years? And now you might say he’s an underdog. He would complete the story.”
The return to glory will have to wait for at least one more day. The second hole at CordeValle is a straight-ahead par-4 with a massive bunker down the left. Woods now plays with a palpable fear of losing drives to the left. He made a defensive swing and fanned his drive well right, into a bunker. He caught his approach heavy, finding the greenside bunker. Then Woods left his next shot in the sand, too. Bogey. On the par-3 third the pin was on the extreme left of the green, and yet Woods somehow missed left. His three-footer for par spun out of the hole, and just like that all the giddy anticipation of the preceding weeks was gone. What we were left with was just another struggling golfer, searching for a fix.
Woods kept missing fairways and putts, growing ever more frustrated by greens that were slowed by intermittent rains. He had a chance to get back to even par but blew a five-foot birdie putt on the ninth hole and four-footer on the 11th. For all the talk about Woods’s swing changes, what always separated him was his putter and his head. Both remain iffy. On the par-5 12th he got careless with his layup shot and jerked it into a hazard. Further misadventures left him with a double bogey. Woods got one stroke back with a textbook birdie on the par-5 15th and then burned a few edges coming in. His two-over par 73 left him four strokes behind his baby-faced playing partner, UCLA junior Patrick Cantlay, and six strokes back of co-leaders Brendan Steele, Garrett Willis, Briny Baird and Matt Bettencourt.
When swinging his driver Woods hit five of 12 fairways, finding a bunker three times. For the round he hit just nine greens but still took 27 putts. His competitive rust offers an alibi for the shoddy play but for the fact on the eve of the tournament Woods had said,” I’ve been playing a lot of holes [at home in Florida] which has allowed me to get my playing feel, my playing instincts back… I’ve kind of done all that legwork and now it’s time to play.”
After the round Woods placed most of the blame on his putter. “One of the worst putting rounds I’ve ever had,” he said. “I don’t think I can putt any worse than I did.”
That’s a result of neglect. “I haven’t practiced [putting] as much as I have in the past,” Woods said. “I’ve been busy working on my [long] game.”
Cantlay resisted the urge to gloat about having trumped the greatest player of all time, saying, “It’s just the first round of a 72-hole tournament.” That’s the only solace for Woods after his buzzkill 73. “I need to put a good round together tomorrow and piece my way back into the tournament,” he said.
That leaves golf fans in a familiar position: waiting for Tiger to find himself.