LAKE FOREST, Ill. – One of golf’s many maxims reads something like this: If you’re having trouble making putts, just hit the ball closer.
Such was the strategy employed by Tiger Woods on Thursday at the BMW Championship, as the world No. 1 finds himself on the first page of the leaderboard at Conway Farms despite several missed opportunities in his opening round.
Two weeks ago, Woods struggled to a tie for 65th at the Deutsche Bank Championship while ranking near the bottom of the field in putting. After a week off, the 14-time major champion was able to improve his performance on the greens Thursday thanks in large part to more accurate approach shots on a course that he described as “confined” a day earlier.
Among the seven birdies Woods carded en route to his 5-under 66, six resulted from made putts no longer than 7 feet. It wasn’t until the ninth hole, his last of the day, that Woods rolled in a putt of any significant distance, a closing birdie from nearly 23 feet that left him three shots off the pace set by Brandt Snedeker.
Normally, opening with a 66 on a relatively unfamiliar course would be cause for celebration. For Woods, though, the focus remained on the unrealized potential.
“I’m not exactly real happy,” Woods explained, sounding like anything but a man who sits tied for third. “I certainly wasted a lot of shots out there today.”
The main issue for Woods was that while many of his birdies were from short distance, his most notable misses were from even closer. His lone opening-round bogeys were the product of a pair of putts from inside 3 feet that failed to find their intended targets at Nos. 4 and 6, while a third putt from inside 5 feet for birdie on the eighth hole also failed to drop.
“I played well, I just didn’t get much out of it,” noted Woods, who reached 15 of 18 greens in regulation.
Another issue for Woods was the trio of par-5 holes at Conway Farms, each of which he played in five shots. For a player who entered the week ranked 12th on Tour in par-5 performance, and who has made a career out of capitalizing on a course’s longest offerings, the result was disappointing.
“I played the par-5s stupendously,” he noted, adding just a hint of sarcasm.
Despite what might have been, though, it’s important not to lose sight of what actually was, and the implications of today’s round for the balance of Woods’ weekend in the Windy City.
With each approach shot seemingly more accurate than the last, Woods appeared more like a member at Conway Farms than a player seeing its tree-lined fairways for just the second time. In addition to the slew of short birdie opportunities he converted, Woods also gave himself several other chances from inside 20 feet and even as the wind began to swirl on his inward nine, the world No. 1 appeared to have his iron distances very much under control.
After the round, though, Woods explained that a lack of course knowledge did affect him on the putting surfaces.
“More than anything, I think it’s just reading the greens,” he said. “The familiarity, I just don’t quite have it, and some of the putts are a little bit tricky here and there.”
Make no mistake, Woods’ efforts on the greens did little to combat signs of putting woes, a facet of the game with which he has appeared to struggle for much of the season while setting a world record for “green speed” mentions in various post-round news conferences.
At the same time, though, his iron approaches showed how a player who has seemingly been saddled with “struggles” on the greens could win five times this year while ascending to the top rung of the world-ranking ladder in a fashion that at times has bordered on dominant.
After 18 holes, Woods is right where he wants to be. Well, almost.
Though not leading, the current FedEx No. 2 is tied for third, firmly in contention and within striking distance of Snedeker at the top. Furthermore, an already limited field of 70 players has been thinned out, as just 28 were able to break par Thursday while 14 appeared to play their way out of things by carding scores of 74 or higher.
The ability to focus on missed opportunities after shooting a 66 is one afforded to few players, though Woods is certainly among that elite group. While a brunt of the attention may be paid to his short miscues, it should not detract from the iron play that has put him near the lead after just 18 holes.
It remains to be seen when, if ever, Woods will find his comfort zone on the greens at Conway Farms. One thing is certain, though: if his tee-to-green game remains as solid as it was Thursday, he might be able work his way to the top of the leaderboard – one kick-in birdie at a time.