CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The cheering was loud and enthusiastic when Tiger Woods stepped to the tee on a chilly morning, another sign that perhaps people are more interested in his golf than what kept him away for so long.
About the only thing that bothered Woods on Thursday was the few applause after his introduction.
He went seven tee shots without hitting a fairway. He hit into the water on consecutive holes, the first one leading to double bogey. And right when it looked as if he might limit the damage, Woods flew the green at No. 9 on his final hole for one last bogey.
Woods wound up with a 2-over 74, ending his streak of 21 consecutive rounds at par or better dating to last September. It was his worst opening round at a regular PGA Tour event since he shot 75 at The Players Championship three years ago.
What did he plan to fix?
“Not a damn thing,” Woods said. “I’m just going to go hang it up today and come out tomorrow.”
Suddenly, the goal is to stick around longer than two days at Quail Hollow, where he won two years ago and has never finished worse than 11th in his four previous starts.
The rust everyone expected at the Masters, where Woods tied for fourth in his first competition in five months, showed up at Quail Hollow. After a risky flop shot that Woods pulled off to near perfection at the par-5 10th for a birdie to start his round, it was a mad scramble to save par for so much of his day.
He pulled some tee shots to the left, one of them banging off a rake next to the bunker, another one bounding into the stream that winds along the 18th fairway. He hit to the right on the par-5 15th, under a large holly bush, forcing him to battle for par.
And when he did find his swing late in the round, he left himself 10-foot birdie putts on the wrong side of the hole, making it tough to pick up birdies that he desperately needed.
“I had a lot of issues out there trying to figure out where my balls were going to go,” Wood said. “I hit a bunch of balls left, I hit a bunch of balls right, hit a few down the middle. And that was about it.”
If he wants to make more eye contact with the fans, this was the day. Woods was among them for so much of his round. And if he wanted to keep toning down his emotions, this was ideal practice, too. Woods kept his language clean, the only four-letter word coming at the 16th hole when he screamed, “Fore!”
Beyond the golf, Quail Hollow figured to be another hurdle in his return to golf after tawdry affairs that make him an easy target for tabloids and talk-show hosts.
The Queen City was on her best behavior.
This is the first tournament for Woods with open ticket sales, and while the gallery is always strong enough to make this tournament feel close to a major, it sold out quickly after Woods announced he would play.
There were no hecklers. A couple of single-engine planes flew overhead, none carrying banners. Uniform police officers were scattered among the gallery, yet there were no incidents.
Woods didn’t notice one way or the other. He kept his head down, even after a few of his good shots. He was asked after the round if it was therapeutic to at least be out among so much positive energy.
“I’ll tell you what, I would like to say ‘Yes,”’ Woods said. “I was struggling so bad today, I didn’t know which way I was going to go, whether I was going left or right. I didn’t really hear much, to be honest with you. I was struggling so bad out there. I was just trying to piece together a round to keep myself in the tournament. As of right now, I’m only six back of second, and one good round tomorrow can get me right back in it.”
The last time Woods failed to shoot par or better was a 1-over 72 in the third round of the Deutsche Bank Championship in September, the only FedEx Cup playoff event where he failed to contend.
He had his chances on his back nine when he started hitting fairways, with a slight draw on No. 3, a slight fade on No. 4. He appeared to have full command on his shots, picking up three birdies until a finish that left him with a sour taste.
“I chose the wrong club on the last hole,” he said. “The wind came up, and I thought I could take something off a 4 (iron) and hit it over the green. It should have been 5, put it in the center of the green, two-putt and move on. But I didn’t do it.”
He was surrounded by three dozen media outside the scoring area, then ducked into the locker room. His caddie waited in the parking lot, loaded up the car and off Woods went.
Woods now has played five rounds of competition in nearly six months. The expectations haven’t changed.
“I try and be easy on myself,” he said. “But I know what I can do and I’m not doing it. And that’s certainly frustrating.”