Woods shows rust, regression in opening round

Tiger Woods waits on the eighth green during the first round of the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

Tiger Woods waits on the eighth green during the first round of the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. - Tiger Woods probably has never looked more vulnerable on a golf course when healthy or as human off it in an interview session. He began the PGA Championship with a sloppy 77, his highest opening score in his 62 major-championship starts, and looked and sounded defeated after slashing about, from bunker to bunker, in the heat.

"I'm not down," said the shell of the man who has won 71 PGA Tour titles, including 14 majors. "I'm really angry now. There's a lot of words I could use beyond that."

We used to count his trophies, records and birdies. Thursday, we counted the number of times his ball found bunkers (14), ponds (2) and plugged lies (3). As one creative pal suggested, new interim caddie Bryon Bell may have raked more bunkers in one round than Woods' former looper Steve Williams did in one decade.

Tiger tracker

Tiger Woods took 77 swings in Thursday's opening round. Recount them all by clicking here.

Woods walked off the Atlanta Athletic Club 14 strokes behind leader Steve Stricker, who matched the major record with a 63 and acted like he was playing the Atlanta Classic instead of Glory's Last Shot on a long, difficult course.

While Stricker cruised, Woods resembled a mechanical head case, lost and confused. He made three double bogeys, the only time he has done so in a major round and just the second time he has recorded three scores of double or worse as a professional.

It was painful to watch. So you can imagine how he felt. Rusty and inconsistent in his second tournament back from a 12-week layoff because of leg injuries, Woods has regressed from arguably the most dominant player in the game's history to just another guy fighting his swing and thoughts.

Woods said he was frustrated by both the score and the fact he isn't more advanced a year into a swing overhaul with instructor Sean Foley. He said he regretted trying to play with feel and instinct after going 3 under par on his first five holes (Nos. 10-14) with mechanical thoughts.

"I said, 'You know what? I'm feeling good; let's just let it go,' " he said. "And it cost me the whole round. . . . Unfortunately I'm not at a point that I can let it go."

Interestingly, that's backwards from the norm. Most players kick themselves for being too mechanical and not playing with feel enough. Woods said he wished he had stayed with the technical ideas that helped him grab a share of the early lead.

"Absolutely," he said. "I wouldn't have done what I did today. That's what's frustrating, because I'm in a major championship, it's time to score, time to play and time to let it go. I did (let go), and it cost me the round."

Woods finally played golf instead of swing at this year's Masters, where his short game kept him from winning another jacket. But then injuries halted any momentum, limiting him to nine competitive holes for about four months until last week.

He sounded the same refrain today as last week, when he ranked last in driving accuracy at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Old "motor patterns" from his former swing popped up. His ball doesn't curve as much now, putting doubt into where he should aim.

Woods had never shot worse than 75 in a PGA. Nor has he ever missed a PGA cut, but that looks like it very well might change Friday unless he finds something of a miracle cure.

"It's going to be a lot," Woods said of necessary adjustments before Round 2. "It's a laundry list."

Woods has missed only three major cuts, and each is attached to a different reason - 1996 Masters (he was an amateur), 2006 U.S. Open (a month after his father died) and 2009 British Open (six-hole stretch at 7 over, with two doubles and one lost ball).

This one could be attributed to rust and confusion. He said Wednesday that his reasonable expectation this week was a "W." He did not say WD. But he might as well have said WD-40, considering all the corrosion caked on his swing.

His current state, too, could be traced to a questionable decision to discard a swing that had been so effective. Over 3 1/2 years, from July 2006 to the end of '09, Woods won a mind-boggling 51 percent of his PGA Tour starts. But then his world began unraveling during an infidelity scandal, and instructor Hank Haney resigned.

As it happened, Woods shot 77 here despite making four birdies, not hardly enough to offset the three doubles and five bogeys. He hit but five fairways and got up and down from greenside bunkers only two out of seven times, again resembling something of a 12-handicap out of sand.

He found eight bunkers on the front nine, six on the back. He entered sand twice apiece on Nos. 2, 9, 16 and 18.

"If you don't hit the fairways, you've going to have to scramble pretty hard because the bunkers are tough," playing competitor Davis Love III said. "They're really soft. If you fly it in them, there's a good chance of being plugged, and if it rolls in, it's digging in."

In a sense, here's all you need to know about the condition of Woods' game: The toughest holes used to elevate him above others; Thursday, they exposed him. He played the brutal eight-hole stretch - Nos. 15-18 and 1-4 when starting on 10 - in 8 over par, even though he saved bogey twice from 5 feet.

A lay observer could suggest Woods doesn't look as tall, strong and athletic at address as in his dominant years. At times, he seems to look like a pigeon-toed man trying to touch his knees together as he attempts to fit into a locker.

What he's thinking is another matter. He looks like someone playing with an unquiet mind. It's to the point he was emotional on the range, getting mad after undesirable practice shots.

Whatever, Woods on Thursday somehow failed to beat Jerry Pate, 57, recipient of probably the most curious nostalgic special exemption ever extended. For the record, Woods was about 6 months old when Pate won the U.S. Open here in 1976.

As the two men pieced together their 77s, an airplane carried a banner advertising an insurance company. Perhaps the plane's trailer instead should have read, "Who kidnapped Tiger Woods?"

Woods' inner champion appears bound and gagged in a dark closet somewhere. One has to think it will emerge at some point, but nobody knows when or where.

Not even him.

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