Woods gains confidence with opening 71

Tiger Woods turned in a 1-under 71 in the first round of the PGA Championship.

Tiger Woods turned in a 1-under 71 in the first round of the PGA Championship.

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – It was nearing dinner time in Cheese Land, and Tiger Woods was headed to his car after a long day of work. As he exited the stage, I could only chuckle as I heard a comment ring out from the media bullpen behind 18.

“Can’t put too much stock in one round,” said a scribe.

Hey, for starters, we’re a pessimistic bunch. And secondly, the statement is absolutely true. However, continuing along those lines, it’s amazing to think how much stock was placed on four rounds in Akron last week. It was 72 holes, a speck in a glorious career. Granted, Woods looked like an imposter better suited for a club member-guest than a top-tier PGA Tour event, shooting 18-over 298 in the most dismal, scrutinized on-course week of his life. He might well have borrowed Phil Mickelson’s sticks and played left-handed.

When the fog finally lifted mid-day Thursday and Woods showed up to the 10th tee at Whistling Straits for the 92nd PGA Championship, half the people packing the tee area seemed surprised the guy made contact.

Lest we forget, he’s pretty good, you know. Seventy-one victories, a winning percentage of 27.2 (incredible in this game) and 14 majors good. A guy who will play his 50th round in the PGA Championship Friday, and stands a stout 58 under par for the first 49.

Sure, we cannot not put too much emphasis or importance on Woods’ opening 71. It’s 18 holes, it’s golf, and she can turn the other cheek and be a meany come tomorrow. But for Woods, considering the abyss that was Akron just days ago, it was a very nice, positive step in a good direction.

Maybe now everyone can exhale – Ryder Cup captains included.

Woods even got a little excited at his final hole, the 466-yard ninth, where he stuffed a shot from 159 yards to 7 feet below the flagstick, then rolled in the right-to-left breaker. Why such excitement for one last birdie? Because it put him under par, and on this day, he knew that’s exactly where he belonged.

“I played too good not to shoot under par,” Woods said afterward, “and it would have been very disappointing and frustrating to end up at even par as well as I played today.”

Outside of a couple of loose par 5s on his incoming nine (Nos. 2 and 5 on Whistling Straits’ front nine), he appeared to play pretty solidly. He controlled the trajectory of his golf ball, a must when the winds kick up off nearby Lake Michigan, and he had better speed on the greens than what he’s been exhibiting with the flatstick through the summer. A few of his putts rolled well but came up just a bit shy – a simple lack of adjusting between the way he was seeing them and actual speeds. But on this day, he wasn’t about to nitpick.

Not after where he’d survived four days earlier in Ohio.

“Was the driving better?” he was asked.

“Everything was better,” Woods responded.

Yes, it’s been an interesting ride of self-discovery, to say the least. It was one year ago that Woods surrendered a Sunday lead to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, the first time he’d done so after a 14-0 major mark, leaving those in the media to wonder if indeed he was mortal after all. Back then, we were sticking to the golf.

In late November, his SUV struck a tree outside his Isleworth home in Florida, and man, we’d all learn how human he really is. Not that anyone should feel sorry – a troubling predicament for a man who seemingly had it all was self-inflicted – but he’s among many men who fail. Few have to try to stand up and dust themselves off while living life in a fishbowl.

photo

Tiger Woods during the first round of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Woods talked earlier this week about his life finally “normalizing” – that is, helicopters no longer following overhead, paparazi not there to stalk the every move of his wife, Elin, and the couple’s two children. Nine months after his world turned upside-down, he mostly gets asked about golf these days. There is a long journey ahead, but life is, well, to borrow a phrase, normalizing.

On the golf course Thursday, Woods, for the most part, appeared to be somewhat close to his normal self. He put his tee shots into eight fairways, hit a dozen greens and had 28 putts. He didn’t three-putt a green. He plotted his way around Whistling Straits the way he plots his way around many major layouts, often cautiously early, knowing a tournament cannot be won on Day 1, but it certainly can be lost. He drove into a fairway bunker and hit some loose shots on the par-5 second hole, leading to bogey, but it seemed the only time all day he fell out of sorts. He sniped a drive into the swamp at the par-5 fifth, but recovered by saving par.

Tiger said he felt no differently going to the first tee on Thursday than any other time, but you have to wonder about the real truth in that. A few days ago, he was absolutely awful at Firestone, and though he’d put the hard work in, results are never guaranteed.

Did his start enhance his confidence?

“Certainly it does,” he said.

What a season. The four major venues all were in his wheelhouse, and he likely will go empty. His No. 1 ranking is in jeopardy and his spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team is not even secured. Is it even fathomable to think the team plane for Wales might leave without him? Crazy, right?

It’s not often this guy plays as if he’s on trial on the golf course, but Thursday was one of those days. Forty thousand jurors. The result? A corner turned, even if, as my writing pal reminded, it was only one round.

It was a start.

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