SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The fog finally lifted over Whistling Straits and revealed a stunning vista.
Tiger Woods’ name was atop the leaderboard.
Just not for long.
At the end of opening day in the PGA Championship, he wasn’t near the names of Bubba Watson and Francesco Molinari, who each opened with a 4-under 68; or Ernie Els, Matt Kuchar and Nick Watney, who also were at 4 under when it became too dark for them to finish the first round.
Woods, who made three birdies inside 12 feet on the opening four holes, had to birdie his final hole just to break par, a 1-under 71. That used to be considered an ordinary start in a major. Considering his recent woes, this was nearly cause for celebration.
“To shoot something under par, that was the goal today,” Woods said.
He joined 21 others among the 78 early starters who completed the first round, which was delayed by more than three hours because of fog. Still to be determined is whether he can back that up. It was the first time in eight rounds that Woods had broken par.
And there were enough errant shots, including one that went so far left it found a marsh he didn’t know was there, that Woods had to make an 8-foot birdie on the final hole to avoid wasting a day in which he appeared to make progress.
“I’ve played too good not to shoot under par,” Woods said. “It would’ve been very disappointing and frustrating to end up at even par as well as I played today. To make that putt – to shoot under par – just feels like that’s what I should have shot the way I played today. And that’s a good feeling.”
Since when is shooting 71 a good feeling for a guy with 14 majors?
When he’s coming off the worst tournament of his career, an 18-over 298 at Firestone to beat only one player in the field, raising questions that ranged from whether this would be his last PGA Tour event of the year in America to whether he belonged in the Ryder Cup.
“Welcome to golf, you know?” Woods said.
The fog delay meant none of the late starters could finish the opening round.
Els, desperate to make sure another year doesn’t end without a major, played bogey-free through 14 holes and was at 4 under, making a 7-foot par save on the 14th shortly before the horn sounded. Also at 4 under were Matt Kuchar and Nick Watney, courtesy of eagles – Kuchar on the 13th early in his round by holing from the fairway, Watney on the par-5 11th, his last hole of the day.
Phil Mickelson, closer than ever to going to No. 1 in the world, ended a wild day at 1 under. He knocked it close for a couple of birdies, and spent the rest of the time in the bunkers and rough as he scrambled to save par. He finished on a strong note with back-to-back birdies, the last one a wedge that stopped 2 feet away on the 11th.
In a summer of majors at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, it only figures that a fog delay of just over three hours would be in Wisconsin.
“I had never gotten up at 5:30 for a 12 o’clock tee time,” said Charles Howell, who shot a 69.
The group at 69 also included Ryan Moore, the only player among the early starters to reach 5 under until dropping two shots over his last three holes into the wind. Jason Day of Australia bogeyed his last hole for a 69.
With so much rain on Wednesday and in the week before the PGA, the course that looks like a links played more like a PGA Tour course with soft conditions. It was suited perfectly for Watson, one of the biggest hitters in golf.
Of all his birdies, none showed off his power quite like 587-yard fifth hole, the first one on the back nine with the wind at this back. Ignoring the bunkers and water to the right, Watson hammered his drive so far—445 yards by his calculations—that he had only a lob wedge for his second shot and an easy two-putt birdie.
“It makes it a little easier, I guess, when you do that,” Watson said of his long game.
Everything feels easier these days for Watson, the southpaw from the Florida Panhandle who has been through some tough times at home. His father is battling cancer, and he had a major scare over the Christmas holidays when told that his wife – who once played professional basketball – had a tumor. It turned out to be an enlarged pituitary gland, but Watson still broke down talking about it.
His goal now is to enjoy himself, from the video games at night to the golf he plays during the day, and it led to his first PGA Tour victory two months ago at the Travelers Championship.
Is a major too far behind? Watson didn’t sound like the pressure would ever get to him.
“Any golf tournament I have a chance to win, that’s a major,” he said. “I don’t change the way I do anything. I still hit driver as much as I can, and hopefully chip and get up-and-down and make putts.”
He had nine one-putt greens, which works at any tournament.
Molinari went about his work differently, relying on accuracy. He missed only four fairways and two greens, dropped only one shot along the way and worked his way into a share of the early lead with a birdie on the par-3 seventh, among the scariest of the par 3s that hug the shoreline.
Coming off two majors won by players who had never done it before, Molinari has reason to believe he could be next.
“Tiger is going to get back to his standards, and Phil is going to win more majors,” he said. “and so you just need to play really well and try to grab the occasion when you have it.”
Woods took a step in that direction.
For the first time all week, he hit a shot without caddie Steve Williams holding the end of a club over his right ear as a reminder to keep his head still. Woods found the first fairway, hit wedge to 12 feet and started with a birdie. Then came another birdie on the par-5 11th, when he two-putted from some 80 feet off the green.
It was the first time in more than a year that Woods had started a tournament with consecutive birdies.
“After a quick start, all of sudden I felt I could shoot something in the 60s,” Woods said. “Didn’t quite happen. I lost a few shots out there.”
One bogey came from a tee shot that missed the fairway by 3 yards and was buried in deep rough. Another came on the par-5 second, when his drive landed close to the lip of a bunker, his next shot sailed with the wind into the gallery and his third stunned him.
“What the hell?” he said to his caddie. “Did you see that ball?”
It started right and looked like a knuckle ball, settling into a bunker that left him a shot starting at Lake Michigan.
His worst swing came at the par-5 fifth, the one where Watson got home in two with a wedge. Unsure where to go with the wind at his back, Woods let the driver come out of his hand after impact, and the ball sailed left over the fairway, the bunkers, a ridge and into a marsh.
Woods was stunned when he got to his caddie and saw the marsh. He yelled a muffled expletive with his face buried in a towel while wiping sweat from his brow. All that, and he still made par. After the penalty shot, he laid up and wound up holing a 7-foot putt.
He will have to wait until Friday to figure out where that leaves him.
The late starters will finish the first round Friday morning and immediately start the second round. For Woods, Watson, Molinari and the rest of the players in their side of the draw, they will face a late start and likely won’t finish Friday.
If nothing else, that means Woods will make it to the weekend.