AKRON, Ohio – Tiger Woods appeared to face a big test Thursday in his return to golf.
It was a 3-wood around the trees on the 658-yard 16th hole at Firestone that required him to go at it hard, cut short his back swing to produce the sharp fade, then let the momentum of his motion carry his body forward with an awkward step.
Only it didn’t feel like that big of a deal to Woods.
“I was just trying to hit a cut,” he said. “I didn’t feel any problem with that.”
His only concern in the Bridgestone Invitational was that he hit the ball too flush and too far. He still managed three birdies, including a 30-foot putt on the 16th hole, that carried him to a 2-under 68 and sent a strong statement that his leg was as healthy as he thought.
His game wasn’t half bad, either.
“It feels great,” Woods said. “As anybody who’s been off and who’s been injured, first time back it’s a little nervous to see what happens. But my practice sessions were good, so there’s no reason why I should be worried out there. I went out there and let it go, let it rip and see what happens.”
His ex-caddie saw some familiar golf at Firestone, too.
Steve Williams, now working permanently for Adam Scott after Woods fired him a month ago, watched the Australian play flawless in matching his career-low round on the PGA Tour with a 62 that gave Scott a one-shot lead over Jason Day.
Williams was on the bag for all seven of Woods’ wins at Firestone, including his 11-shot win in 2000 when Woods had a 61 in the second round and set the tournament record at 259.
“He didn’t think it was a big deal to shoot 62,” Scott said with a grin. “It was normal.”
Despite all the interest about Woods’ return, there was nothing special about his score, even if it was his lowest opening round this year.
The conditions were so soft and calm that 39 players in the 78-man field broke par, a record number for any round in the 12 years this World Golf Championship has been played on Firestone South.
The scoring average was 69.63, the lowest since the opening round in 2001. Scott, who birdied four of his last six holes, had the lowest opening round ever at Firestone.
Day, who tied for second with Scott at the Masters, shot a 63 in the morning. Nick Watney, a World Golf Championship winner at Doral this year, bogeyed the last hole and still had a 65.
“Probably not what we’re used to seeing around this course, so it was good to take advantage of that,” Scott said.
Even so, this day was primarily about one score, and one player.
The attention on Woods was so great that when he stepped onto the first tee, the gallery lined the entire right side of the 401-yard opening hole and wrapped around the green. Phil Mickelson was wrapping up his round of 67 at No. 9, and when the fans around the green and in the grandstands had their backs turned to watch Woods tee off.
Playing in soft spikes for the first time, and going back to the putter that he used in 13 of his major championships, Woods avoided a poor start by making an 18-foot par putt on the third, and he saved his round toward the end of the front nine by getting up-and-down from a bunker on the eighth, and making a 20-foot par putt on the ninth.
Then came his approach on the 10th, that spun out of the back fringe and settled about 4 feet away for birdie - not only his first of the day, but his first since he two-putted for birdie from 4 feet on the 15th hole at the Masters on April 10.
Woods injured a knee ligament and his Achilles’ tendon in that tournament, and then said he returned too early at The Players Championship. He aggravated the injuries on the first hole at the TPC Sawgrass and quit after nine holes at 6-over par. He said he would not play again until he was fully healthy, and that much showed at Firestone.
There was one moment on the 17th tee when a reporter thought he saw Woods lift his left leg in a peculiar fashion.
“The marker was right in my way,” Woods said with a grin.
Perhaps more telling is that Woods said he stopped putting ice on his leg and taking inflammatory medicine “a while ago,” and held nothing back in his first competitive round in 84 days.
“I hadn’t really gone at it yet until today,” he said. “Just kind of plodding away, just kind of hitting shots. Today was just, ‘Let’s go, let’s go play, just put everything else aside and let’s go give it a go and try to post a low number.”
His lone bogey came on the 14th hole, when he tried to hit a perfect bunker shot from a slightly downhill lie with the green running away from him. He came inches short of pulling it off, leaning back in disbelief. He two-putted from the collar for bogey, and then came back two holes later with a shot on the 16th that showed he might already be at full strength.
The only problem he had was controlling his distance, and Woods had a reason for that, too.
“I’m hitting it just so much more flush, and I’m just not used to that,” he said. Does that mean he was hitting it badly before?
“Yeah,” he said. “My swing was more of a wipey swing … so I wasn’t getting a full transfer of energy. Now I’m swinging easier. I’m not even hitting it hard yet, and that’s what’s fun. I’m hitting it farther without any more effort.”
It took great effort to get atop the leaderboard.
Day went out early and posted a bogey-free round of 63, making birdie on the last hole. No one else from the morning group was better than a 66. And then it was Scott’s turn in the afternoon. He thought 63 was a pretty low score for this South course, but then figured it was there for the taking with so many other scores in the 60s.
“I just feel like I need to get myself in these things from Thursday, show up and go, not show up and see how you get on the first nine,” Scott said. “I feel like that’s a good way for me to go because I’m hitting the ball well, and I feel really confident on the greens. It was green light and just attack.”