PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Playing a week after he withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a neck strain, Tiger Woods was taking it on the chin from a brute called the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Thursday’s first round of The Players Championship.
Woods withstood an early barrage, however, took the lead on points round the turn and outlasted a back-and-forth on the back nine to get the better of the muscled-up, 7,189-yard Stadium with a 2-under-par 70.
He stood five shots out of the lead set by Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley. World No. 6 Rory McIlroy, who has five top-6 finishes in five starts this year, also is on the first page of the leaderboard at 67.
The Stadium Course was fierce, especially with swirling winds that arrived around noon and sharpened its teeth. Ninety minutes later, Woods was wobbly at the start, which included a snap-hook drive off the second tee that banged against trees and came to a stop just 190 yards away. His bogey on the third was the result of a tee shot left of the green, from where he was forced to pitch sideways.
Woods fought back starting on the fourth as his tee balls started to find the intended targets and his approaches the greens. Birdies at the seventh, 10th, 12th and 13th got him to 2 under. His lone bogey during his bend around the turn came at the par-5 11th when his second shot from 251 yards ended in a water hazard.
Woods finished with two birdies and two bogeys in his final five holes and made just one par on the back nine.
“I felt like I could have got something in the 60s today and got off to not actually the best of starts,” Woods said. “I hit some bad shots early, rectified that, made a few adjustments, and then went about my business. And then the back nine, there’s nine holes on the back nine, made one par, so that was interesting.
“Usually if I had one par it’s usually shooting 30 or 29, not what I did today.”
Instead, Woods shot 34 on the back nine.
The 2001 and 2013 Players champion recently started working on his putting with Matt Killen, who was with Woods during a practice session Monday and practice rounds Tuesday and Wednesday.
Woods liked what he did with the putter in the first round. He had 30 putts.
“Well, it wasn’t like I had to do a lot,” Woods said. “I just got back into something that I do naturally. I putt with the toe moving and toe releasing. My face moves a lot more than most players do, and we just went back to that.
“I feel like I can go ahead and hit it with my right hand again. That’s how I’ve always putted. I always had a lot of hit in my stroke, and that felt good again. I felt like I rolled it today. I felt like I was able to get up there, and I felt comfortable. I was able to rip it, and I felt pretty good.”
Woods hopes there’s a repeat of Thursday in the second round, where the early starters face more serene conditions. Woods tees off at 8:32 a.m. ET Friday. On Thursday, there was little wind for the morning wave to deal with.
“Hopefully we can catch it on the calm side and have some smoother greens and post a low number and then see if the guys have to face what we had to face in the afternoon with the wind moving pretty good,” Woods said.
As for his neck, he said all is well. On the 14th hole, when he missed the fairway to the right, he faced a severe uphill lie from heavy grass. Woods took a mighty slash as he cut the ball toward the green. It was his most ferocious swing of the day, but it didn’t result in any pain in his neck.
“No, I’m all good with that,” Woods said.
And he was pretty satisfied after his battle with the Stadium.