AKRON, Ohio – Entering this week, Tiger Woods knew he had to perform.
He found himself in an unfamiliar position, needing to reel off a pair of high finishes this week and next to even make the FedEx Cup playoffs.
He was also making his third start since back surgery, and needed to continue his progress toward regaining the form that earned him five PGA Tour titles last year.
And with the Ryder Cup on the horizon, Woods needed to “show him something.” The “him” being U.S. captain Tom Watson, the “something” being a nebulous level of skill that might be enough to justify selecting Woods as a captain’s pick in four weeks.
During the first round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Woods got a preliminary check across most of those boxes. Whether he has done enough to write them in pen, though, remains to be seen.
On a course where he has won eight times and where he triumphed by seven shots a year ago, Woods opened with a 2-under 68 that left him tied for ninth after the opening round, four shots behind Australia’s Marc Leishman.
Coming off a 69th-place showing at the Open Championship – and on a day when only 27 of the 76 players broke par at Firestone Country Club – it was reason to celebrate.
“Overall, I was very pleased with today,” Woods said. “I hit a lot of good shots. I dropped shots at three holes out there today, got it right back on the very next hole. That was nice to have three good bounce-backs.”
Woods spoke Wednesday of his comfort level around Firestone’s South Course, and that familiarity paid dividends during his opening round.
Tee shots were finding the fairway. Iron approaches were often on target and, perhaps more importantly, almost always pin-high.
Granted, the round was not without hiccups. Woods opened with a sloppy three-putt from 8 feet for bogey on the opening hole, then forfeited momentum on the par-4 ninth. Following a run of three birdies in four holes, his tee shot drifted into the trees on the right. After his second shot caught a tree limb and nearly dropped back at his feet, he walked off with a double bogey.
On a layout where he effortlessly carded a 61 a year ago, Woods expended plenty of energy during his opening round, a back-and-forth effort that featured only two pars across his first 10 holes.
But Woods’ ability to flag down pin after pin – he had birdie putts from inside 10 feet on six of those opening 10 holes – was a welcome change from the erratic shots often seen at Royal Liverpool.
“I’m starting to get in the flow of things,” he said. “I’m starting to get the feel back in my hands, and get the ball, my trajectory, under control. I’m starting to (hit) the ball the correct numbers again.”
This is, after all, just the opening round, and for Woods only the first of an eight-round audition that will play out over the next 10 days. The exact form he must display to merit a Ryder Cup selection is essentially a moving target.
Is it a single-round performance? A tournament result? A run of birdies that might prove beneficial in match play?
Only one man knows the answer to those questions, and it’s not the T.W. who strolled the fairways Thursday.
So with his name near the top of the leaderboard, Woods is in position to quiet many of the doubters. Four rounds of 2-under 68 will go a long way toward doing that, and could be enough for him to book his ticket to Scotland in September.
But it’s also a similar position to the one he occupied after the opening round at Hoylake, a 3-under 69 that he followed with three straight over-par rounds to fade from contention.
As far as starts go, this was a good one, but Woods' ability to demonstrate some consistency will be the next step on his comeback trail.
“I feel like I’ve made some progress,” he said. “This is only my seventh round back. So it’s just going to take a little time.”
“Little” is the only increment of time Woods has left if he wants to have any chance to extend his season beyond Valhalla. One round is in the books, but there is still much golf to be played.