AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods escaped in the first round of the Masters. The hard number on the scorecard read 72. But considering how poorly he drove the ball, the result was much more feat than famine.
Factoring the places from which he played his second shots, he scratched out a nice score. It was the kind of round that could have dropped him out of contention early. Instead it was a day that may have saved the 2012 Masters for someone seeking a fifth green jacket.
“This round didn’t lose him the tournament,” Hank Haney, his former coach and author of a new book about their six years together, said by telephone. “This round might have won him the tournament. Two penalty shots and he shoots even par. That’s pretty good. That’s how you win. He’ll figure it out and play better tomorrow.”
Woods knew he got away with one.
“I squeezed a lot out of that round,” Woods said. “Didn’t hit it very good at all. Warmed up bad, too, and it continued on the golf course.”
Woods had a serious case of the lefts. He hit six drives left, leading to penalty-stroke drops on Nos. 2 and 18 and bogeys on the last two holes. He also hit a sky ball at 14 and drove into a right fairway bunker at the eighth.
“Same old motor patterns,” Woods said when asked to explain his driving problems. “Now I’m struggling with it all the way around with all the clubs. I need to go do some work.”
He was referring to a hybrid swing in which motions from his old swing with Haney have mixed into the action he has been taught by Sean Foley since summer 2010.
“The Hank backswing and the new downswing,” Woods said.
Haney laughed at the reference.
Woods’ mandate to Haney was to teach him a way that would eliminate, or at least minimize, drives that traveled left. During their time together, Woods’ missed drives were 83 percent right and 17 percent left, Haney said. Now the statistics for 2012 say he’s 50-50.
Asked why he thought Woods missed left so often Thursday, Haney laughed and said, “Not because of me. He didn’t hit it left with me; he hit it right. Now I’m getting blamed for the left, too.”
The lack of ball control was surprising. Woods came here ranked first on the PGA Tour in total driving and second in ball-striking. And he was coming off a command performance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he won his first Tour title in about 30 months.
“I hit a few loose ones (Thursday),” Woods understated.
On the opening hole, Woods’ ball squarely hit a tree in the left rough and bounced back and further left. He scrambled for par, saving from 8 feet. He drove into a hazard left at No. 2 – in an area known as the Delta Ticket Counter because a visit there often results in an early flight home – and saved par from 6 feet.
He parred Nos. 9 and 15 after driving left and bogeyed 17 after going from left trees to a front bunker. Then he hit a towering pine tree on the left at 18, his ball falling into a bush. He dropped, missed the green left and saved bogey.
“He seems to be more tolerant of (the left miss) now,” Haney said. “And that’s probably a good thing. I thought it was inhibiting when he worried about left before.”
That flight pattern is often caused when a player gets the club stuck behind him and flips the clubface with his hands. Poor players swing steeply and over the top. Pros tend to go the other way, coming down flat and too much from the inside.
“It’s the classic Tour player mistake,” Haney said. “He’s not the fist player to fight being stuck.”
Despite his problems, Woods saw a silver lining. He fought and remained committed to his routine on every shot, he said.
“It’s something I’m excited about and I can take some positives going into tomorrow,” Woods said.
He wasn’t the only one who saw sunshine. Playing competitor Miguel Angel Jimenez said Woods is “playing very, very well.”
“The only thing he wasn’t very fine with today was from the tee,” Jimenez said. “If you are not in the right place from the tee, you have nothing to do here. … You have no chance to hit the flags.”
Something Woods knew too painfully well.