Curious case of Chris Couch: Robbery, victory and allegations

By Jason SobelApril 24, 2013, 12:23 pm

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – Surrounded by vintage movie posters on the walls and a pair of Pekingese puppies nipping at his heels, Chris Couch sits back on a worn leather sofa in the living room of his split-level home and begins to share the unlikely story of his 2006 Zurich Classic victory and the unlikelier story of his nighttime scare in the post-Katrina streets of New Orleans earlier that week and the unlikeliest story of what he perceives was a PGA Tour cover-up of the unvarnished truth.

Fittingly wearing an old football jersey and gym shorts, the man listed understatedly at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, now looks more like a retired linebacker than a professional golfer. Couch, 39, has been sidelined by a back injury since last August, limiting him to few non-physical therapy forms of activity, save for bench pressing. And so he’s done that, over and over, making him perhaps the strongest player on the PGA Tour, if not also the least agile.

He tried to play a few holes recently at West Orange Country Club, here in his backyard. After traversing the opening four holes in 1 under, his back gave out and he limped home – almost quite literally.

Some days aren’t too bad, though. Some days he’s able to wake up, head to his physical therapy session and put in a solid workout. This isn’t one of them.

“Today is a bad day,” Couch reports. “My back is killing me. I was set to go to the gym, but didn’t make it. I woke up this morning and I couldn’t walk.”

Instead, he’s camped out in front of the television, a wad of chewing tobacco wedged into his lower lip and a super-sized Mountain Dew resting within arm’s reach. His wife, Julia, lounges on the other end of the sofa, dutifully checking her cellphone, while their 3-year-old daughter, Cora, plays with Barbie dolls in an adjacent room.

As Couch gets into his stories – beginning with a robbery, ending with a victory and alleging a cover up – he maintains that he has no ax to grind against any PGA Tour officials. This isn’t about getting anybody in trouble or seeking any sort of revenge. But when he looks back at his lone Tour victory from seven years ago and thinks about the tale that was spun in varying levels of vagueness, the regret eats at him from the inside.

“I explained to them that I’m a Christian and I don’t understand why I can’t just tell the truth,” he recalls. “I really don’t like to lie. But they pretty much told me I had to do it.”

The 2006 edition of the Zurich Classic was unlike any PGA Tour event before or since. The city of New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina eight months earlier, its death toll inching close to 2,000 while hundreds of thousands of residents were left without homes. It was labeled the costliest natural disaster in history and the ensuing governmental outreach toward the community was often rendered little more than a punch line.

In a city with such devastating damage, staging a golf tournament isn’t the ultimate priority. And yet, from local officials to tournament organizers to a title sponsor, which had just climbed on board one year earlier, it was seen as part of the rebuilding process. This was a clear way to prove to residents and outsiders alike that New Orleans was prepared to hold its first nationally televised sporting event since Katrina.

Not that it was easy. Host course TPC Louisiana remained under water, which meant a return to former venue English Turn Golf & Country Club. Nor was it a simple task to recruit professional golfers to a region where they were worried about issues like flooded streets and air pollution, which actually weren’t issues at all.

“That was our biggest challenge,” remembers Darrah Schaefer, chairman of the board for the Fore! Kids Foundation and a 22-year veteran of the tournament who was in charge of player operations that year. “We had to spend a lot of time on the road. We had to give players the assurance that the city was safe and it was a real opportunity to compete. There was a lot of speculation as to whether the city was really back, because the news showed Canal Street and a lot of the lawlessness. We knew it had been fixed, but the national perception wasn’t there yet.”

As it turned out, contesting the tournament was the right call. Louisiana residents David Toms and Kelly Gibson helped raise millions of dollars for the relief effort. Phil Mickelson decided to pitch in his entire paycheck, but when that totaled only $87,720, he rounded up to make it a cool quarter-million. Other players followed suit, giving the event a feel-good vibe of being both an official tournament and a charitable contribution to the community.

In this celebration of camaraderie and support, it’s easy to understand where a singular tale of misadventure within the city’s outer limits was a square peg in this round hole. It wouldn’t fit the week’s theme. It wouldn’t help the perception that New Orleans was back.

Chris Couch

Following rounds of 78-73 that left him well outside the Shell Houston Open cut line, Couch made a beeline to New Orleans on Sunday morning in an effort to beat the traffic, so to speak. He was already suffering through an unbearably frustrating season, earning just $22,278 in nine starts and missing the cut in all but two of them. For those who had kept an eye on Couch throughout his career, the numbers were mystifying.

This is a player who at 16 qualified for the Honda Classic. One year later, he was the No. 1-ranked junior golfer in the country. He attended the University of Florida, where he was a two-time All-America selection. In 1993, he holed the clinching putt for the Gators’ third NCAA title in team history.

Despite that pedigree, Couch turned pro and found varying degrees of success. He would clean up on the Nationwide Tour, and then struggle on the PGA Tour. Back and forth, year by year. He thought about quitting a few times. In 2003, he was on the verge of hanging up the spikes for good when he received an hour-long pep talk from fellow pro and longtime friend Brenden Pappas. That pep talk was punctuated by a $3,000 loan – enough for Couch to play three more events, where he finished T-20, T-2 and solo fifth and continued soldiering on toward his dream.

There was no reason, though, after years of futility and a struggling start to the 2006 season that Couch could be optimistic about the Zurich Classic. When he arrived four days early with trainer Ron Benner, who was making his PGA Tour caddying debut that week, the idea was twofold. Sure, it gave him an extra day to iron out any problems with his swing. But there was something else.

Couch figured if he was ever going to check out the controlled delirium of Bourbon Street, this was going to be the night.

The following is Couch’s account of what took place that night. There is no police report on record. Any witnesses were never identified, let alone locatable years later. His word is the only word that exists. As he speaks, the narrative he’s held in publicly for so many years comes pouring out. This is his story.

“I told Ron, ‘We’ll just kind of walk down the street, hit some bars, have some dinner – that kind of stuff. And that’s what we did. We probably got there around 7. Hit some bars, had some dinner, just walked the whole street. I told him I was going to stop in a bank over there and get some money, since I wasn’t coming back down there. He said, ‘OK, I’ll meet you at the car.’ So I hopped in the bank, got some money. It was this huge bank, you have to walk through some glass doors to get to the ATM. Anyhow, I came out and he had headed to the car. I just got turned around, I guess. I was wandering around for 10-15 minutes and I couldn’t find my way back to the car.

“So I saw this cop on the side of the road; he was leaning on a white SUV and he was talking to the people inside. I went up to the cop and said, ‘Look, I’ve gotten turned around here. I parked my car at the Sleep Inn. Can you guide me to the Sleep Inn?’ As the cop was starting to say something, there were four girls inside. They said, ‘We’re heading over that way. Do you want us to give you a ride?’ I was thinking, this cop is talking to them. I’m sure there’s no harm here. So I said, ‘Sure, if you could drop me off, that would be great.’

“And so I hopped in and about five minutes into the drive, I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ This was just after Katrina and we were heading toward abandoned buildings and stuff like that. So I said, ‘What’s going on? Where are you taking me?’ I grew up with street smarts, so I knew something was wrong. I saw the girl in the front passenger seat reach into the glove compartment and pull out something and she put it in her right hand. I thought, she’s either got a Taser or a gun. These girls are going to try to rob me.

“I was sitting behind the driver in the backseat, so I grabbed the shoulder of the driver – in case they Tased me, she’d get Tased, too. And then the two girls in the backseat started going through my pockets. As they were grabbing stuff, I was trying to grab it back.

“I had two phones at the time; they took both phones. They got very little cash, because the cash I took out of the ATM, I had in my left pocket and I was in the left backseat behind the driver’s seat, so they couldn’t get to that. I stuck my Rolex in my pocket, too. They got my credit card and charged $900, but I was able to cancel that later.

“When they slowed down, I jumped out of the car. As I jumped out, another car pulled up alongside them. Four guys jumped out. So now I don’t know where I am. I have sandals on. And I’m kind of in an abandoned place. These four guys jump out of the car and I just kind of said, ‘Come on. Let’s go.’ I looked them straight in the eye and said, ‘If you want a piece of me, I’ll take all four of you on.’ They jumped back in their car and both cars took off.

“I ended up running back toward town; I probably ran for 15-20 minutes, I’m talking running pretty hard the whole way. The first place I saw was this tattoo parlor. So I walked in there and told the guy who owned the place what had happened. He said, ‘OK, let’s call the cops.’ He gave me a beer, which calmed my nerves. He was a nice guy.

“Anyway, the cops showed up and I told them what happened. They took me to the department and I explained it to a detective, but it just seemed like they dropped it after that.

“So that’s how the night went down. Nothing ever happened. They didn’t look for the people or anything.”

When he arrived at English Turn the next day, Couch met with members of the PGA Tour security team, local law enforcement officials and tournament organizers. At this point, he was just one of 156 players in the field – and hardly a celebrated one at that. With just those two made cuts in nine previous starts, there’s little doubt those in the room assumed the situation would blow over without garnering much attention from the media.

Even so, Couch contends that he was instructed to “cover up” any information about what had happened the night before. “The Tour didn’t want me to say anything, because they said they’d just gotten done with Hurricane Katrina and this was the last thing they needed, bad media about a PGA Tour player getting mugged at gunpoint or Taser or whatever that girl had,” he recalls. “They just said this would be bad for the first sporting event back to New Orleans since the hurricane.”

Others in that meeting maintain that no such instructions were ever given.

“I don’t believe that there was any agenda,” Schaefer says. “I don’t think it was the PGA Tour trying to cover anything up. There were a lot of stories at the time that dealt with the lack of safety in the city. They were very concerned with this not snowballing in terms of what actually happened. … The questions kept coming up: Is the city safe or not? Did you go looking for trouble and find it? Or did something come find you? We encourage everybody to come and compete, but we’re not going to tell you what to do outside the ropes.”

He even suggests there was more to the story that the PGA Tour’s security personnel had uncovered. “They weren’t dealing with speculation; there wasn’t any supposition. They were dealing with actual information.”

Though he wasn’t on site at the tournament that week, PGA Tour executive vice president of communications Ty Votaw reports, “I confirmed that officials did speak with Chris, but those conversations were more concerned with respect to his welfare.” Votaw strongly maintains that the Tour would never issue a “cover-up.”

Chris Couch

For five days, the story hardly surfaced. There was some scuttlebutt on the driving range – one rumor among competitors had Couch kidnapped and driven to Mississippi – but otherwise, nobody made too much of a big deal about the struggling pro who got into a little after-dark trouble.

It still wasn’t news on Friday, when Couch barely exceeded his recent brand of unremarkable golf to make the cut on the number. The next day, he took advantage of an early tee time, posting an 8-under 64 in blustery, swirling winds to eventually move into first place entering the final round.

After he finished, Couch was asked about the rumored story by a few reporters. Heeding the instruction (or was it advice?) offered in that prior meeting, he told them in part, “They looked normal, so I thought I could get a ride with them. I jumped in their car, but it got kind of weird. I didn’t really like the situation, so I hopped out of the car and I was in the middle of nowhere.” He recounted the story without many details, shrugged it off as little more than an interesting night in the Big Easy.

Sunday’s final round provided one of the more memorable finishes in recent memory. Still in the lead on the tournament’s penultimate hole, it seemed like the proverbial clock had struck midnight, Couch’s carriage instantly turning into a pumpkin.

After making a mess of the hole, he found himself with a 12-foot putt to save bogey. He sank it. That brought him to the final hole, leading by one in search of an unlikely first PGA Tour triumph. After a good drive, Couch hit a pitching wedge that flew the green and somehow – to this day, he doesn’t know how – stopped on a downslope in a greenside bunker so saturated, he thought it felt “like concrete.”

Using an unorthodox yet effective cross-handed chipping motion, he dislodged the ball from the bunker, but barely landed it in the rough behind the green. Knowing he could likely get up-and-down to still force a playoff, Couch stood over the ball. He prayed. Then he swung.

The ball rolled and rolled and rolled and disappeared into the cup. Couch threw his arms in the air and let out the loudest whoop of his career. In the CBS booth nearby, Lanny Wadkins blurted an expletive on live television. Tournament organizers and security personnel who six days earlier listened to the story of a competitor finding trouble in their city perhaps had their worst fear realized.

After the round, when the adrenaline had finally settled down and reality was setting in, Couch plopped into a chair in the interview room to meet with the assembled media. He was asked about the cross-handed, walk-off chip, of course. He was asked about the $3,000 loan from Pappas. He was asked about his stellar amateur career and not-so-stellar professional career. And then he was asked about the previous Sunday night, almost one week to the minute earlier, and the champion answered in the most roundabout way he could.

Q: Chris, this has been a long week for you beginning with last Sunday night. Obviously we know the story about it. Is there anything in there that you want to fill in the holes for us?

A: I haven’t seen what was written, but I’m sure it was all the truth.

Q: We assume you will not celebrate the same place tonight that you celebrated?

A: Yeah, I don’t know. You never know. You might see me down there. I kind of like Bourbon Street. I like the city. It was unfortunate what happened.

Q: I’m curious, did you ever locate the cellphone? Did you call…

A: No, I haven’t. I have another one, though.

Q: Can you put this whole week into perspective? Can you imagine any other winner of this tournament has ever had a week in the city like you have?

A: I doubt it. It’s been an adventure. But it couldn’t have worked out better.

And that was that. The man who says he detests lying may not have lied, exactly, but he never quite told the entire truth, either.

All of which should lead to this question: Why now?

Why, after seven years of vagueness, after seven years of hidden details and roundabout answers, why is Chris Couch finally ready to tell his story?

“I think the truth should be told,” he says. “I think with every situation, people should be honest. I mean, honesty is the best way to go. Sometimes when you’re in the wrong, you’ve got to be honest and say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake.’ I may have had a couple too many drinks that night and my judgment wasn’t very good, but looking back, my instincts told me these have to be OK people.”

Couch lumbers from his sofa to the front door. His back hurts. On days such as these, he can barely walk, let alone think about playing competitive golf. Before reaching the door, he reflects one last time – not just on the incident in New Orleans, but on a few years of having trouble find him off the course – and thinks about where he is now.

He senses a connection.

“I was kind of in a bad point in my life where I was going out a lot and just doing things I shouldn’t have been doing,” he admits. “I think those things have caught up to me. Maybe I’m getting punished for my behavior now, which I probably deserve.”

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Simpson, Noren share Honda lead after challenging Rd. 1

By Doug FergusonFebruary 23, 2018, 1:25 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Tiger Woods had what he called ''easily'' his best round hitting the ball, and he didn't even break par at the Honda Classic.

Alex Noren and Webb Simpson shared the lead at 4-under 66 in steady wind on a penal PGA National golf course, and felt as though they had to work hard for it. Both dropped only one shot Thursday, which might have been as great an accomplishment as any of their birdies.

''When you stand on certain tee boxes or certain approach shots, you remember that, 'Man, this is one of the hardest courses we play all year, including majors,''' said Simpson, who is playing the Honda Classic for the first time in seven years.

Only 20 players broke par, and just as many were at 76 or worse.

Woods had only one big blunder - a double bogey on the par-5 third hole when he missed the green and missed a 3-foot putt - in an otherwise stress-free round. He had one other bogey against three birdies, and was rarely out of position. Even one of his two wild drives, when his ball landed behind two carts that were selling frozen lemonade and soft pretzels, he still had a good angle to the green.

''It was very positive today,'' Woods said. ''It was a tough day out there for all of us, and even par is a good score.''

It was plenty tough for Adam Scott, who again stumbled his way through the closing stretch of holes that feature water, water and more water. Scott went into the water on the par-3 15th and made double bogey, and then hit into the water on the par-3 17th and made triple bogey. He shot 73.

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Rory McIlroy was at even par deep into the back nine when he figured his last chance at birdie would be the par-5 18th. Once he got there, he figured his best chance at birdie was to hit 3-wood on or near the green. Instead, he came up a yard short and into the water, made double bogey and shot 72.

Noren, who lost in a playoff at Torrey Pines last month, shot 31 on the front nine and finished with a 6-foot birdie on the ninth hole into a strong wind for his 66.

The Swede is a nine-time winner on the European Tour who is No. 16 in the world, though he has yet to make a connection among American golf fans - outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma, from his college days at Oklahoma State - from not having fared well at big events. Noren spends time in South Florida during the winter, so he's getting used to this variety of putting surfaces.

''I came over here to try to play some more American-style courses, get firmer greens, more rough, and to improve my driving and improve my long game,'' Noren said. ''So it's been great.''

PGA champion Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Morgan Hoffmann - who all live up the road in Jupiter - opened with a 67. There's not much of an advantage because hardly anyone plays PGA National the other 51 weeks of the year. It's a resort that gets plenty of traffic, and conditions aren't quite the same.

Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who now lives primarily in West Palm Beach, also came out to PGA National a few weeks ago to get a feel for the course. He was just like everyone else that day - carts on paths only. Not everyone can hole a bunker shot on the final hole at No. 9 for a 67. Mackenzie Hughes of Canada shot his 67 with a bogey from a bunker on No. 9.

Woods, in his third PGA Tour event since returning from a fourth back surgery, appears to be making progress.

''One bad hole,'' he said. ''That's the way it goes.''

It came on the easiest hole on the course. Woods drove into a fairway bunker on the par-5 third, laid up and put his third shot in a bunker. He barely got it out to the collar, used the edge of his sand wedge to putt it down toward the hole and missed the 3-foot par putt.

He answered with a birdie and made pars the rest of the way.

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

Woods played with Patton Kizzire, who already has won twice on the PGA Tour season this year. Kizzire had never met Woods until Thursday, and he yanked his opening tee shot into a palmetto bush. No one could find it, so he had to return to the tee to play his third shot. Kizzire covered the 505 yards in three shots, an outstanding bogey considering the two-shot penalty.

Later, he laughed about the moment.

''I was so nervous,'' Kizzire said. ''I said to Tiger, 'Why did you have to make me so nervous?'''

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Players battle 'crusty' greens on Day 1 at Honda

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 11:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods called the greens “scratchy” on PGA National’s Champion Course.

Rory McIlroy said there is “not a lot of grass on them.”

Morgan Hoffmann said they are “pretty dicey in spots, like a lot of dirt.”

The first round of the Honda Classic left players talking almost as much about the challenge of navigating the greens as they did the challenge of Florida’s blustery, winter winds.

“They looked more like Sunday greens than Thursday,” McIlroy said. “They are pretty crusty. They are going to have a job keeping a couple of them alive.”

The Champion Course always plays tough, ranking annually among the most challenging on the PGA Tour. With a very dry February, the course is firmer and faster than it typically plays.

“Today was not easy,” Woods said. “It's going to get more difficult because these greens are not the best . . . Some of these putts are a bit bouncy . . . There's no root structure. You hit shots and you see this big puff of sand on the greens, so that shows you there's not a lot of root structure.”

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Brad Nelson, PGA National’s director of agronomy, said the Champion Course’s TifEagle Bermuda greens are 18 years old, and they are dealing with some contamination, in spots, of other strains of grasses.

“As it’s been so warm and dry, and as we are trying to get the greens so firm, those areas that are not a true Tifeagle variety anymore, they get unhappy,” Nelson said. “What I mean by unhappy is that they open up a little bit . . . It gives them the appearance of being a little bit thin in some areas.”

Nelson said the greens are scheduled for re-grassing in the summer of 2019. He said the greens do have a “crusty” quality, but . . .

“Our goal is to be really, really firm, and we feel like we are in a good place for where we want them to be going into the weekend,” he said.

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McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 11:03 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.  

“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”

He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.

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Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.

The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.

The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.

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Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.

It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.

Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.

He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”

It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.

And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.

Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.

The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.

“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”

The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.

But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.

The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.

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But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.

So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.

“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.

"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said. 

To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.

They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.

“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”

Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.

But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.

Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”