Tiger Woods a big hit in opening round of Honda Classic

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Tiger Woods a big hit in opening round of Honda Classic

PGA Tour

Tiger Woods a big hit in opening round of Honda Classic

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods did not look like a 42-year-old man chasing an improbable dream with four back surgeries on his medical chart. He looked like an above-average player legitimately capable of winning golf tournaments again.

Woods shot even-par 70 Thursday in Round 1 of the Honda Classic at PGA National, a tough course some wondered if he was capable of handling just 10 rounds into his latest comeback.

He handled it.

Everyone wondered how he would hold up physically this time around. The swing now looks comfortable enough that he wasn’t asked one question about his health during the post-round press conference.

He was, however, asked if it feels like a matter of time before everything clicks.

“Yeah, I feel like I’m really not that far away,” Woods said. “I’m starting to really get a feel for scoring again and scoring in tournaments, and today was a day that I’m very proud of because I missed the ball in the correct spots.”

There was a momentum-killing double bogey at the par-5 third hole, Woods’ 12th of the day. But the fact that he played the only two par-5s in 2 over shows just how close he was to showing up atop the leaderboard in Round 1.

“You come off the golf course and, this isn’t a negative thing, you feel like you probably shot the highest score you can shoot, which is a positive,” Tiger’s caddie Joe LaCava said.

Aside from the double bogey, Woods continually left himself tap-in pars. He made three birdie putts on the day, only one longer than 6 feet. Four of his birdie tries missed the mark by less than a foot, on hole Nos. 10, 15, 17 and 8. That’s golf, but it also suggests that when Tiger says he’s getting close we should probably believe what we saw.

LaCava, too, was optimistic, listing the positives as he walked to his car after the round with Woods’ clubs strapped on his shoulder.

“Flighting the ball, hitting some shots into the wind like on 15, like on 8 and 9,” LaCava said. “Beautiful little cut shots into the wind. Showing he can hit those shots and his back is OK with it.”

Woods only hit driver five times Thursday, often deferring to the 3-wood and long irons given the windy conditions. That helped put a Band-Aid on the accuracy issues for now, though he missed wildly to the left early in the round at the par-4 12th. He hit a good recovery shot and got up-and-down for par, something he did with such improbable consistency during his prime.

We saw another impressive example at the par-4 sixth. Woods was right of the cart path and clearly in trouble after another miss with the driver, 183 yards out and in danger of squandering the momentum he regained with a birdie at No. 4 immediately following the double bogey. The gallery had grown considerably throughout the morning and surrounded Woods as he prepared to hit. A rapid uppercut swing left him in fine shape in a left greenside bunker. From the fairway, one could see Woods’ head bobbing above the masses as he paced forward, club still in hand, admiring his work.

One could also think about the fact that it’s been three years since these fans have had the opportunity to witness a Woods moment like that up close. His last start in the state of Florida was a T-69 finish at the Players Championship in May 2015. It had to have been the first such moment for hundreds of them.

Woods got out of the bunker and rolled in a 3-footer for par to stay even on the round. That’s exactly how he finished, four shots better than playing partners Brandt Snedeker and Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season.

“I’m trying to get better, more efficient at what I’m doing, (what) I’m actually doing under the gun, under the pressure of having to hit golf shots, and this golf course is not forgiving whatsoever,” Woods said. “I was very happy with the way I hit it today.”

Woods sat T-20 midway through the afternoon wave, four shots off early leader Alex Noren. This golf course is difficult enough that he could still regress Friday and miss the cut. He could also put himself in contention going into the weekend.

Whatever happens in Round 2, Woods’ ballstriking was ‘easily’ the best it’s been this year, in Woods’ view, and there are no signs of an impending physical breakdown. Suddenly, Woods is back playing the hits for fans who have watched them on YouTube but never seen them up close, never felt deep down what it’s like to be a part of.

Is this Tiger Woods back for a full slate of shows? One night only?

The driver is still a big concern, the sample size is tiny and this comeback could all go drastically downhill at any point. But he’s still drawing huge galleries and TV ratings, he’s starting to pull off some really good golf shots and, on this day, letting people experience something once feared to be gone for good.

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