ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – In Australia it was a tip from Steve Stricker that set Tiger Woods right on the greens. He may want to place a call to whatever deer stand Stricker is holed up in for a follow-up after Thursday’s opening round at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Woods hit 17 of 18 greens on a calm, cool morning, needed 35 putts and signed for an opening 2-under 70 to begin his 2012 campaign that could have been much better had a few more putts dropped.
Woods missed birdie attempts from 5 and 3 feet at Nos. 13 and 18, respectively, to begin his round and didn’t miss a green, or make a putt over 4 feet, the rest of the way to finish three strokes behind Rory McIlroy, whom he was paired with on Thursday, and Robert Karlsson.
In Australia the problem was mechanical, but on Day 1 in Abu Dhabi the issue appeared to be material.
“Today I hit a lot of good putts, but I just didn’t read them well at all,” Woods said. “I really struggled with the speed and the reads. On some of the putts the grain snagged it hard and on other putts it didn’t move at all. I just had a hard time seeing it. I could see it at the hole, but I had a hard time seeing the blades and how they are laying.”
Woods also struggled on the greens at the Australian Open and early in the week at the Presidents Cup late last season, and that led Stricker to offer his frequent Ryder and Presidents Cup partner an impromptu tip.
“He just had me move the ball back, basically,” said Woods, who continues to use the same Nike Method putter he finished last season with. “I was undercutting it and I couldn’t quite cover the golf ball like I wanted to, so he said just move it back a quarter of a ball. I did and I would start making the contact that I would want to make.”
About the only putts he made at December’s Chevron World Challenge came on the 71st and 72nd holes to clip Zach Johnson by a stroke and a textbook ball-striking round on Thursday, not to mention perfect scoring conditions, was derailed by pedestrian putting.
In short, if Gareth Maybin, your leader for much of the morning, putted for Woods on Thursday he would have posted 65. Instead, he’s three back and searching for answers.
“The problem is I just play (the ball) too far forward,” he said. “(Stricker) got me in a position and when I got to the World Challenge I just kept doing the same thing. I got back to my natural alignment with the ball back from where I had it. I was able to start seeing my lines.”
Still, if Woods was overly concerned with his 35-putt effort there were no signs of alarm as he bolted the property just past noon and even McIlroy, who rolled in numerous putts, including a winding 40-footer from off the green at the eighth hole for birdie, admitted he has been confused by Abu Dhabi’s grain in the past.
“I’ve always struggled to read the greens here,” McIlroy said. “There’s quite a lot of grain here but it’s not very apparent. The green doesn’t change color as much as they would in Florida.”
Even Woods’ driving, often his Achilles’ Heel under both Hank Haney and current swing coach Sean Foley, was nearly as flawless as the clear desert sky. He hit five of his last seven fairways and even his misses were manageable.
“I controlled it well all day. Probably the best tee shot I hit all day was on the first hole (No. 10). I didn’t think I could get to the bunker – it’s 310 (yards) to the bunker and it’s cold – and I got it in there,” said Woods, who consistently outdrove McIlroy and Luke Donald, the third member of the high-profile threesome. “I thought, ‘this is probably a good sign.’”
Following a seven-week break and what Woods called his first true offseason in perhaps a dozen years it was also a good sign that, despite his troubles with green and grain, he remained within a field goal of the lead at what will likely be the deepest field until February’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
It’s also a good sign that throughout myriad change in his life and game in recent years, Woods spent his offseason covering familiar ground on the practice greens. “I work on the same drills. Nothing changes. It’s the same drills I’ve worked on since I was 8 (years old),” he said.
It’s certainly a formula that’s worked in the past, but he may want to keep Stricker’s phone number close just in case.
Watch live coverage of Tiger Woods' second round beginning at 3AM ET Friday. Saturday and Sunday action airs live from 4-8AM ET.