PITTSFORD — Let me get this right out there, in case there’s any confusion.
Tiger Woods was quite pleased with his 1-over-par 71 in the first round of the PGA Championship on Thursday. He thought he played well.
In fact, Woods said it three times in a five-minute flash interview after his opening round at Oak Hill. He played well. He played very well. He played really well. Take your pick.
“As I say, I feel like I played well today,” Woods said. “I made some nice key putts and the key is, I left it in all the good spots, too.”
The people who cover the tour on a regular basis say they can script Tiger’s words ahead of time. He’s become that predictable. His comments have a rehearsed quality, as if Woods is trying to convince himself.
Well, I followed Woods around Oak Hill on Thursday, and it didn’t strike me as a performance worthy of the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer. He’s the heavy favorite here, the proud owner of 14 major titles. The standard is a little bit higher than it is for, say, Jonas Blixt.
Woods had a chance to post a low number on a day when scores were uncommonly low at Oak Hill. In seven previous major events on the East course, only 10 players who finished 72 holes posted a score under par.
But an overnight rain had softened the course and made it vulnerable to a field that includes 99 of the world’s top 100 players. The greens were as receptive as the crowd at a Springsteen show. Winds were negligible, so golf balls weren’t as likely to visit Oak Hill’s sinister high rough.
Before a weather warning suspended play at 4:25 p.m., 21 players had posted scores below par-70. There were 35 men under par in all. Adam Scott, the reigning Masters champion, was 5-under through 10. Miguel Angel Jimenez birdied five holes in a row at one point and was minus-4. Lee Westwood and Justin Rose were 3-under.
So much for the talk about Oak Hill bringing the world’s best to their knees. All of a sudden, it was the John Deere Classic, or Houston. I’m told the plaques on the Hill of Fame at the 13th hole were seen weeping.
Players were crushing the front nine. Scott scorched the front in 30, Paul Casey in 31. There were too many 32s to count, and a lot of fine players were still out there. Woods shot 38 on the front nine, and he says he played well.
Sorry to trifle with Tiger’s positive mental approach, but a 71 by the heavy favorite doesn’t cut it. Matt Every can talk about a 71 being a good day. He’s missed 10 cuts this year. Rich Beem, who won this event in 2002 and hasn’t won since, can talk about playing well after a 71.
Woods wasn’t up to it. It wasn’t all that interesting, either. I hadn’t seen him in a major since the dramatic win over Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines in ’08. You’re hoping to see that kind of magic again. But it was actually dull following Tiger around Oak Hill, like watching a hot movie that leaves you wondering what all the fuss is about.
There’s no aura about Tiger anymore. No one yells “You the Man” at him anymore. Sure, he tore it up at Firestone a week ago. He came close to shooting a 59 one week ago today. But it seems like ancient history. No one cares about your stunning performance the week before a major.
It did seem like it might carry over at the start. Woods was 2-under after his first six holes, a shot off the lead. He made a couple of medium-range putts to save par. But he wasn’t hitting many of his approach shots close, and when he finally got some chances, he couldn’t cash them in.
Woods missed makeable birdie putts on Nos. 1, 2 and 3 (he started his round on the 10th hole). On No. 2, a 401-yard par-4, he had a 4-footer for birdie and didn’t come close. He said it didn’t help that PGA rules officials had put his group (Davis Love III, Keegan Bradley and Tiger) on the clock for slow play. As if Tiger Woods would ever be penalized.
“It would have been nice to take a little bit longer on that putt,” Woods said. “It was a tricky little putt.”
That sounds like an excuse. There always has to be some outside force that contributes to his misfortune. When Woods issued his scripted apology after cheating on his wife, he attributed it to a sexual addiction. It wasn’t so much a failing, but something that happened to him.
All has been forgiven, of course. The galleries treat Woods kindly these days. The people don’t adore him, as they do Phil Mickelson, but they shout his name in rote fashion. There wasn’t a single, discouraging word about his past indiscretions. Alex Rodriguez can only wish he was a pro golfer.
Woods’ game seems a little safe these days. He can’t keep the driver in the fairway, so he uses lesser equipment to keep it straight. There were a lot of irons off tees Thursday. Tiger hit them very straight for the most part. He played smart, but it wasn’t very good drama.
Watching Woods hit irons off the tee and get up-and-down for par isn’t what sold all that merchandise and drove the TV ratings to unimagined heights.
And Woods didn’t have the stats from the Bridgestone or Honda Classic on his wall as a kid. He had Jack Nicklaus’ record in majors.
“I’m still right there,” Woods said. “I mean, as of right now, I’m only six back and we have a long way to go.”
He has come back from a rough start before in majors. If Woods puts up a 68 today, he’s right in the hunt. It wouldn’t be a surprise, because he has become Captain Friday in the majors over the last five years. If it was about Friday, he would have a couple more major notches on the belt.
The problem is, Woods has been a bad finisher in majors for five years now.
His aggregate score on the weekend at his last seven majors is 25-over par.
So while a heroic weekend charge isn’t out of the question, the recent record says otherwise.
Maybe that’s why Tiger needed to convince himself he played well in the first round. He’d rather not contemplate the notion that before this thing is over, he might play even worse.