NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Hitting driver on all but three holes, Tiger Woods had his best round all year off the tee. On half of the holes at Aronimink, he had birdie putts inside 20 feet.
It was more reason for optimism – until he looked at his scorecard.
One minute he was on the verge of closing in on the four leaders Thursday in the AT&T National – Nick Watney, Joe Ogilvie, Jason Day and Arjun Atwal – the next minute Woods signed for a 3-over 73 that left him outside the cut line going into the second round.
Somewhere over the final five holes, it all went wrong.
“Very frustrating,” Woods said.
It was anything but that for Atwal, who has played as many practice rounds with Woods as anyone over the last few years at their home course of Isleworth in Florida. He made seven birdies, enough for a 4-under 66 that put him atop the leaderboard after the first round of a PGA Tour event for the first time in five years.
Ogilvie kept it out of the gnarly rough and finally made some putts. Day and Watney also avoided trouble, which was the key at an Aronimink course with undulating greens that are quick and firm, and rough that is nearly as tough as it was at Pebble Beach two years ago in the U.S. Open.
Woods’ only two birdies came on the front nine. He opened with a 4-foot putt, and the other putt he made was almost by accident. After a poor swing in which his hand came off the club, he was at the back of the green on the par-3 fifth and caused one of the loudest cheers of the day when his 60-foot putt fell in.
That was the last birdie.
“My speed is good,” Woods said of the 30 putts he required. “I’m just not hitting the ball on line. Even when I did hit my putts on the exact line I wanted, they still didn’t go it. I didn’t read them right. It’s been sort of a combo platter.”
The final five holes looked more like leftovers.
He was 1-under par, and with a par 5 coming up, Woods had a chance to get within range of the leaders and set himself up for a good second round Friday morning when the air is still and the greens are smooth.
But he came up 40 feet short on the par-5 14th, left his birdie putt some 5 feet short and three-putted for bogey. He had to navigate a tough, downhill chip on the next hole to save par, and then it all fell apart.
It was opposite of his third round at the U.S. Open, which Woods leaned on as a sign of progress.
He laid up out of the right rough on the par-5 16th, giving him 82 yards to a front pin. No sooner had he hit the ball than Woods flung his sand wedge and started walking, the ball flaring to the right and into the bunker. He wound up with a bogey on the easiest hole at Aronimink.
“I laid the shaft down and hit it to the right,” was the only explanation Woods offered.
The par-3 17th proved to be the toughest hole at Aronimink. No one hit it closer than 15 feet all day on the 197-yard hole over water, and Jonathan Byrd made the lone birdie. Woods tried to hammer a 6-iron toward the middle of the green, but he turned it and watched it come up short on the shaved bank and trickle down into the water. From the drop area, he hit it to 15 feet and made double bogey.
“I was trying to lean on a 6-iron and I overcooked it,” he said.
Walking quickly to the 18th, Woods hit his best drive of the day and followed that with a wedge to 5 feet. His round ended appropriately when the birdie putt caught the corner of the cup and spun away.
Woods will start the second round Friday morning in a tie for 81st, needing a good round to stick around for the weekend in a tournament that benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation.
“I keep hitting it like this, I’ll be fine,” Woods said. “The putts will start going in. It felt good to drive it on a string again.”
It felt great for Atwal, who is playing on a minor medical extension this year after injuring his shoulders while lifting weights last year. He has eight more tournaments to earn about $280,000 and retain full playing status for the rest of the year.
Atwal, who grew up playing Royal Calcutta in his native India, was the first Indian to win on the European Tour in 2002. He also made news when a man trying to race him down an Orlando street died in a crash. Atwal was cleared of any wrongdoing, although the investigation lasted a year and took an emotional toll.
Lately, however, he is best known for playing with Woods – not only at Isleworth, but three rounds of practice at the U.S. Open, and nine holes Tuesday at Aronimink.
“As far as comparing myself with him … it’s strange, because we practice and play every day, so I’ve stopped doing that,” Atwal said. “Initially, when I used to practice and play with him, I used to compare myself. But now, it’s just … whatever. He’s always helped me if I have any questions about short game or whatever it is. He’s always been there.”
Asked what kind of bets they have at Isleworth, Atwal smiled and said, “No comment.”
“All I can say is I owe him a little bit right now,” he said.