Hard road back: Tiger’s first-round 70 at PGA National another reminder that this comeback will not come easy

February 22, 2018

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — The nice thing about having an early first-round tee time is that you can’t be trailing by that much by the time you play your first shot. Woods has had plenty of Thursday afternoon starts at Augusta and other places where he’s four back before a headcover comes off in anger. At 7:45 Thursday morning, here at PGA National, Woods and his playing partners, Brandt Snedeker and Patton Kizzire, gathered on the 10th tee all with the word EVEN next to their names. Fresh start, for everybody. After the debacle that was his two rounds last week at Riviera, Woods needed it more than most.

I’ve been watching Tiger Woods play golf in person since he was 19, and I have been lucky enough to be on hand for 14 of his 17 major titles (counting his three U.S. Amateur wins). But Thursday morning at the Honda I realized that I had not seen him play a shot live since the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2015.

The world — the golf world — has changed since then. Justin Thomas, for one thing, playing right in front of Woods on Thursday, has come to the fore. Another new thing (to my in-person eyes) is Woods’s black Monster Energy golf bag, with his name on it in small block white letters and nine lime-green logo Ms, in a in a typeface one could call Freddy Krueger Serif. Tour yardage books have more green information in them than they did even three years ago, and Woods on Thursday spent more time looking at his yardage book with a putter in hand than I had ever noticed before.

Most significant, every fan is a cameraman these days, or so it seems. That’s new, as of last year, when the PGA Tour started permitting the recording of players and their swings during competition rounds. Woods has had cameras pointed at him all his life and has never seemed comfortable with it. At PGA National on Thursday, on every tee, there were scores of front-row spectators legally wielding smartphone cameras, held belt-high and pointed at Tiger. He was never one to make much eye contact with fans when cooling his heels on this tee or that one, and now he has less reason.

The course, credited to Jack Nicklaus, is extremely difficult, start to finish, without a moment to let your hair down. Long, soft damp rough, ponds, firm putting surfaces closer to khaki in color than green. How this is a popular resort course is a testimony to good marketing and the power of network TV. Woods got himself to two under through four holes not by making it look easy but by making an 18-footer on one hole and stiffing a wedge on another. I’ve never seen him swing harder and I’ve never seen him look stronger. Not chiseled and not slender, but thickly muscled, almost like an aging (he’s 42) NFL safety who is careful about diet and exercise, but not neurotically so. You can see more Earl in him than you ever did before, including those rare times when he takes off his hat.

It would be deeply improbable for any golfer to play these 18 holes on Thursday without a bogey and I was eager to see how Woods would respond when (and if) he made one. The caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowan, with more than 40 years of Tour experience, will tell you that no player hated making bogeys more than Curtis Strange, and that Woods was a close second. (Fluff caddied for Woods when he first turned pro.) The first bogey came on No. 16 — his seventh hole of the day — when he hit a perfect tee shot, a poor iron into a short, left greenside bunker. The fans — there might have been 250 walking with him at this point — liked his bunker shot, but he knew better, giving it the nonverbal settle-down command like a pantomime pretending to dribble. The eight-footer for par never had a chance and Woods looked really annoyed, like this 2018 Honda Classic was nearly as important to him as the 2008 U.S. Open. He was grinding.

Woods has always been hard on himself, and he’s always worked hard on the course. On Thursday, start to finish, he was hard on himself and working hard, intensely so, both ways. He tossed clubs at his bag on several occasions, almost never responded to fans calling his name and initiated few conversations (if any) with his playing partners. Snedeker waved one of Woods’s birdie putts to the hole, though it was destined to stop about three revolutions short of the front door. He left a ball on the green when Woods played a bunker shot that he could have marked, but his ball could only help Woods, not hurt him, and there it stayed. That was once an uncommon practice but now it’s not.

On his hat, a couple inches above his right ear, Woods wore a ribbon in memory of the 17 people who were killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. When he was asked about the ribbon after his round, Woods said, “I live here. It’s just a shame what people are doing now and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame. And what they have to deal with, at such a young age. The horrible tragedy they’re going to have to live with. Some of the things we’ve seen just don’t go away.”

You don’t hear Woods talking like that very often, and it’s impressive when he does. He is likely one of the few people, and maybe the only person, who has played golf with Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the past year. His influence, far beyond the borders of golf, could be significant, if that’s the direction he wants to take his public life.

But on Thursday, at least for the five hours it took him to play 18 holes, it was obvious that there is nothing more important to him than trying to reclaim some semblance of his former golfing greatness. His play on Thursday was far better than the two rounds he played last week at Riviera. But it was nothing resembling vintage Woods golf. It was all grind, no magic.

He turned at one under and made the long walk from the 18th green to the 1st tee, on a bridge, across a putting green, through the edge of a parking lot, eating his second homemade sandwich of the day — turkey on whole wheat, is this reporter’s best guess. (He ate his first at 9:20 a.m., while waiting on a tee.) He made an absolute mess of the first par-5 on his back, his 12th hole of the day: shoved the tee shot into a fairway bunker, chipped one out, left himself 150 yards for the third shot which he pulled into a greenside bunker. His putt for 7 was longer than his putt for 6, about which he said, “I got a wind gust, lost my balance and pushed it.” There’s never been a winter winner of a Tour event in South Florida who didn’t putt well in the wind. He came back with a birdie. That was impressive. He showed what the baseball scouts, this time of year in particular, called call bouncebackability. Get shelled, come back next outing and go seven innings, scoreless. Length is not Woods’s issue. Patrick Kizzire, 6-foot-5 and 31 years old, won in November and again in January, is not as long as Woods, not with any club. Snedeker hits his driver about the same distance that Woods hits his 3-wood.

This will surely sound weird, but Woods’s Thursday round showed a golfer who had to work too hard to end the day where he began it, at even par. As he was signing his scorecard, Justin Thomas was on a riser, talking to reporters. He had shot a three-under 67, despite four bogeys. Well, that’s what happens when you’re playing with a free mind and a free swing. You’re not trying to play perfect golf. You know there are going to be bad holes and more good holes. Woods is not there yet. Whether he has enough golf left in him to get back there is a question only his golf schedule over the next few years will answer.

In the meantime, and forever more, really, he is Tiger Woods. On his 9th hole, another threesome — John Huh, Anirban Lahiri and Scott Piercy — all stopped on their way to their next tee to watch Woods play his tee shot. They were looking right at him, mental smartphones in hand. Woods, with Tommy Bolt slits on the hems of his pants — those little triangular cutouts — as he drilled — drilled — another iron off the tee. Don’t ask him to take something off it. That’s not how he plays. As rodeos go, this is not his first. The Honda event is actually the 331st of his career. Somebody asked him if playing the front nine in two under gave him a buzz.

“No,” Woods said. “Sixty-three more holes.”

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]