Woods’ bold recovery leads to 70 at Sawgrass

Tiger Woods plays a shot from the rough on the 12th hole during the first round of The Players Championship.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – For the first time since his return to competition, there was a glimpse of vintage Tiger.

An explosive drive? A string of birdies? A break into the lead?

No, there was none of that. But there was a one-on-one encounter with a clump of sawgrass that seemed to have Tiger Woods totally overmatched.

But we’ve seen that before, haven’t we? And in the first round of The Players Championship on Thursday we saw it again, as Woods pulled off a recovery shot that few thought possible.

In fact, the only person who has a right to voice an opinion to Woods, caddie Steve Williams, suggested he wasn’t in favor of trying the shot.

“It was sitting right in the middle (of the sawgrass),” Williams said. “It was sitting up. You can absolutely whiff that ball.”

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Tiger Woods shot 70 in the first round of The Players.

To set the stage, Woods had just birdied the par-5 11th hole to get to 2 under and he seemed to be gaining momentum. But at the 368-yard, par-4 12th, Woods pulled his tee shot into a mound left of the fairway that is mostly pine needles with patches of thick, gnarly sawgrass sprouting up.

To get an idea as to what sawgrass is like, think steel wool.

It took a few marshals to even find the ball, and one of the first on the scene was NBC’s Roger Maltbie. He took one look and predicted Woods would take an unplayable lie. It’s also the move Williams suggested.

“It’s a very, very low percentage shot,” Williams said, and twice he pointed to a few yards behind them. His view of the situation was simple: Take a drop, move back, have about 110 yards in, “and the worst score you’re going to make is (bogey) five.”

Woods would have none of it.

“He said, ‘I can hit this shot,’ ” Williams said, and the caddie later laughed.

“I told him, ‘I can’t see how you can, but . . . ’ ”

But Woods is the boss and arguably the game’s greatest escape artist, so he took the wedge and his caddie stood back.

“Hit-and-hope,” Woods said. “I felt like I could get a club on it.”

Before standing over his shot of 102 yards, Woods found a similar sawgrass bush and twice hit into it with his wedge. The practice swipes convinced him he could get “steep enough and get a club on it,” and sure enough, he did.

Woods advanced the ball about 80 yards, then followed with a par-saving up-and-down from short and right of the green.

Given the relatively quiet day at the office – three birdies, a closing bogey at the 18th for a 2-under 70 – the recovery shot at the 12th passed as the highlight for Woods. Yet, there were other moments at both ends of the spectrum, those that show he’s still got major rust on his game, and those that demonstrate he’s gaining rhythm.

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Tiger Woods lines up a putt Thursday at TPC Sawgrass.

Perhaps the lowlight was his 3-wood tee shot at the par-4 seventh that had 18-handicappers in attendance smiling. It was a popped-up drive of 190 yards that saw Woods dig a chunk of turf out of the tee box.

“Got stuck behind me,” Woods said. “I threw it to try and save it so I didn’t hit the ball in the right trees. Hit it straight up in the air. I probably could (have) caught it.”

From 242 yards, Woods drilled a 5-wood left of the green, got it up-and-down to save par, then two holes later he made his first birdie to get in red numbers.

But there were encouraging signs for Woods, especially coming off of last week’s 74-79 debacle at the Quail Hollow Championship, arguably the worst performance of his career. Most impressively, Woods hit nine fairways, which is three more than he hit in two days last week. He also hit 14 greens, and though he didn’t putt well (his birdies were from 2, 5, and 15 feet), he felt part of the competition - unlike last week.

“I’ve played six competitive rounds in about seven months,” Woods reminded the assembled media. “It’s one of those things where it takes time to get into the rhythm.”

Clearly, Woods had things in perspective. On a day when a 66 was hung up early (by J.B. Holmes) and another one late (Robert Allenby), when eight players fired 67s, when a whopping total of 86 broke par, and when the field average was under par (71.103), rust or no rust, Woods wasn’t about to smile over a 2-under 70 that left him tied for 37th.

“I only made three birdies,” Woods said, and particularly disappointing was the fact he finished poorly.

After making his longest birdie putt of the day at the par-4 15th, Woods drove it wide right at the par-5 16th, then hit his second shot from 243 yards left of the green. Up on the mounds and in rough, he could only set up a 45-foot birdie roll, which he missed.

He then missed a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-3 17th and pulled a drive into the water at the par-4 18th. It led to his only bogey of the day and ended his round on a sour note, yet Woods felt he had served notice that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Blogs, tweets, stories . . . they all focused on nine-hole practice rounds Monday and Tuesday that were scratchy, for sure, but Woods shook his head.

“I was working on a few things,” he said. “I was very comfortable with what I was working toward and I was very excited about what was happening. It was just a matter of doing it in competition and I did it today.”

Especially to that dastardly sawgrass at the 12th.

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