PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – In the 12 years since he last won here, critical moments such as these had so often eluded Tiger Woods.
Late Thursday afternoon, he was 6 under as he stood on the tee of the 124-yard 17th hole. The warm sun was still beating down. The hole location was in one of the most accessible spots on the island green. The wind, as usual, was swirling.
Would Woods summon his usual magic? No, far from it. His tee shot with a wedge rode the wind and wound up long and right of the hole, some 55 feet away. Flummoxed, he threw a few blades of grass into the sticky air. The crowd groaned.
Upon reaching the green, Woods squatted on the opposite side of the hole, he and caddie Joe LaCava trying to find the proper line, somehow. Up and over the ridge his ball would need to go, near the fringe, and then back down the hill again, with the pond looming if his putt carried too much speed. Anything inside 5 feet would be better than most.
The spectators so desperately wanted the putt to drop, if only so they could roar like it was 2001 again. But rest assured, Woods was quite pleased with his long-range lag to 3 feet, a tap-in par to press forward. In the 12 years since he last won The Players, he hadn’t enjoyed a day quite like this.
The course that has largely befuddled the world’s top player was laid bare Thursday, defenseless, and it took a bare-knuckled beating from the strongest field in golf. At day’s end, 67 players were under par, including 33 with a round in the 60s.
One of those players was Woods, after a 5-under 67. It was a surprise not that he was in form after a three-week layoff, but that he played so well despite his suspect history here.
Among the eye-opening stats:
• Never in 15 previous tries had he broken 70 in an opening round;
• His Players scoring average of 71.4, his worst in any event in which he’s played 50 or more rounds;
• And the 67 was his best score here since the final round in 2007
But on a windless, warm day when the ball flew farther than expected – even his 5-wood traveled about 300 yards, he estimated – Woods took advantage of each of the four par 5s and ran off four birdies in a row around the turn.
In fact, he was 30 feet away from notching his first bogey-free round on the Stadium Course, only to be undone by an 8-iron on the 18th hole that flew 200 yards – pin-high – and bounded over the back, leading to a stubbed chip and bogey.
“This is a tricky golf course,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to make a bogey around here. I think that’s kind of what Pete (Dye) had intended, and I’m sure that most of the guys throughout their career really haven’t had too many other days that are spotless on their cards.”
Spotless or not, Woods finds himself four shots back of surprise leader Roberto Castro, a 27-year-old who matched the course record in only his third career tour around Sawgrass. One shot ahead of Woods is Rory McIlroy, the world No. 2 who has found his game after months of hibernation. Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson each shot 67.
Woods was a runner-up here in 2000 and a champion in ’01, but not much has gone right since – one top-10 finish in 10 attempts. Recently, he has a T-40 and two WDs.
“It’s one of those courses where they’ve got some tough lines,” he said, “and if you’re not playing well, you’re going to get exposed.”
Woods tried a scaled-back approach Thursday, not least because the ball was flying in the humid, 85-degree air. On only four holes did he hit driver, and he peppered most fairways with a 3- or 5-wood.
Indeed, Woods found himself in trouble only once, on the 459-yard 14th. His tee shot sailed well right, into the gallery, and his ball came to rest on the left edge of the cart path. Taking little time to assess his option – surely to the delight of armchair rules officials everywhere – Woods dropped in the pine needles, slashed out short of the green, took another drop from a sprinkler head, and then nearly chipped in. Ho-hum par.
A hole later, he faced a 4 1/2-foot par putt with a massive spike mark in his line. After holing the putt, he chose not to pump his fist but rather to stand in place and tap, tap, tap down the bump.
“It kicked it off-line but it worked out in the end,” he said. “I got lucky.”
Woods, of course, wasn’t so fortunate on the 18th. In a collection area behind the green, he opted for the 56-degree wedge instead of the 60-degree, the 4-iron or even the putter. The grain snagged the bottom of his wedge, however, and the ball landed a few feet short of the putting surface.
Was it a deflating bogey, a sour note to end an otherwise brilliant day?
But now 12 years removed from his last win here, Woods can delight in simply seeing his name near the top of The Players leaderboard.