SAN DIEGO – This was the kind of challenge Tiger Woods used to relish.
Narrow fairways lined with thick, gnarly rough.
Bumpy poa annua greens.
An emphasis on par.
And yet as Woods stood to the side of the 15th green Thursday at Torrey Pines, he looked completely exhausted.
Physical exhaustion was to be expected – this was his first PGA Tour round in 17 months, it was an arduous walk on the rain-softened fairways, and pace of play was agonizingly slow. But mentally, he was wiped out, too.
In his return to PGA Tour golf, Woods struggled mightily off the tee, made three birdies and labored to a 4-over 76. It was probably the best he could have scored.
“I fought my tail off out there,” he said afterward. “I fought hard.”
Woods didn’t ease into the new year, scheduling four events in five weeks, starting this week at brutish Torrey Pines. He didn’t ease into his first round, either. On the first hole, on his very first shot, he pushed his drive down the right side, his ball diving into the juicy rough. All he could do was hack out near the green.
“I’m like, OK, let’s not do this anymore,” he said. “Unfortunately, I did it most of the day.”
Unlike in last month’s event in the Bahamas – where he swung in rhythm and with confidence on the 50-yard-wide fairways – Woods couldn’t find his swing off the tee. He didn’t hit a fairway after the seventh hole. Some tee shots missed left. Most missed right. Even when he tried to lay back with 3-wood, he put himself in an awkward spot. By day’s end, he ranked 142nd in driving accuracy.
Woods can’t simulate thick rough in south Florida, but he played creative recovery shots with a variety of clubs, from wedge to fairway wood. His closely scrutinized short game was tested early and often, and he responded with several nifty pitch shots and flops to keep himself around even par.
“It was nice to put together a round when I wasn’t hitting it that great early,” he said. “I was putting together the round.”
Woods finally hit a pair of solid iron shots, on Nos. 10-11, to move to 1 under. But he fell apart just as quickly, going 6 over during a six-hole stretch.
Most demoralizing was his play on the par-4 15th, where he sniped his drive into the canyon, took a drop, hooked his third shot around a tree, hit a mediocre pitch and two-putted for double bogey.
Overall, he lost nearly four strokes to the field with his ball-striking.
“It was tough out there, period,” he said.
And, no, not entirely unexpected. Woods has played only four competitive rounds in the past 522 days. Torrey’s South Course was the second-hardest on Tour last year. Should we have anticipated anything different?
“Joey [LaCava] kept telling me all day today, ‘Just be patient with it,’” Woods said of his caddie. “I didn’t quite smile at him a few of those times he said that. But I was fighting out there trying to get my ball around the golf course and score.”
Day preached the same word – patience – after the round.
“We can’t just break down everything he did today because it’s been 17 months,” he said. “Let him go a year, let him play and go from there. We can’t panic too much at the start of the year.”
To his credit, Woods is taking the long view. Thursday was the first round of what he hopes will be many this year. He didn’t play well – he’s currently tied for 133rd – but he didn’t embarrass himself playing alongside two of the top three players in the world, either.
All three players in the group made birdie on the final hole. When Woods’ putt disappeared, he tipped his cap to the crowd, smiled and hugged his fellow playing competitors.
More hard work awaits.