SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Tiger Woods spent the first two days of his much anticipated return to the Waste Management Phoenix Open bouncing around this TPC Scottsdale course. He smiled. He cracked jokes. He interacted with fans. Essentially, he was everything that he hasn’t been for years.
We can credit this attitude adjustment to a variety of factors – increased stability in his personal life; myriad injuries finally being healed; an improved swing taking shape. Really, though, all of it was instrumental toward one ultimate goal. He was finally confident and that confidence was lending itself toward a more relaxed nature, one that we’ve so rarely witnessed from Woods.
And then the tournament started.
Any confidence Woods brought into the opening round quickly evaporated into the desert air on Thursday, as he posted a 2-over 73 that left him not only well out of contention, but outside the potential cut line.
It was difficult to watch Woods compete and not think of a well-known quote from a man with whom he’s forever been linked.
“Confidence is the most important single factor in this game,” Jack Nicklaus once said, “and no matter how great your natural talent, there is only one way to obtain and sustain it: Work.”
Woods’ natural talent has never been doubted. He understands that more work is needed in order to retain and sustain the confidence that he seemingly owned in the days leading up to the opening round.
Eight weeks after chunking an astounding nine chip shots on admittedly tight lies around the Isleworth greens, Woods appeared intimidated by similar shots on Thursday right from the start of his round. On the first hole, he used a 4-iron from 11 yards off the green. On the second hole, a wedge. On the fourth, something that looked like a 7-iron. On the sixth, his putter – from 13 yards off the green.
The latter was the kind of play that no other PGA Tour player would make; as if to prove that point, playing partner Jordan Spieth used a wedge from just a few yards away and nearly holed it.
Whether the chipping yips have led to a lack of confidence or a lack of confidence have led to the chipping yips, Woods continued searching for an answer throughout the round. His rationale afterward was that this occurred less because of mental issues than technical ones.
“I'm just having a hard time finding the bottom,” he explained. “Because of my old pattern, I was so steep on it, that I have a new grind on my wedge and sometimes it's hard to trust. This is a similar grind I used to use back in the early 2000s, but it's a different grind. Some of my shots were into the green with tight pins, and either I'll flop it or bump it, one of the two. I chose to bump it.”
It’s not as if the rest of his game was locked in, either.
He pull-hooked a few drives and ballooned a few others way right. His distance control appeared off, too, with many approach shots coming up short of their intended targets, leading to only 10 of 18 greens in regulation.
It showed on the scorecard.
Woods bogeyed each of his first two holes for a third consecutive tournament start. He needed 39 swipes over his first nine holes. And though he played much better on the back nine, that final tally represented the highest opening score in his first PGA Tour start to a season for his entire professional career.
“I didn't get into the mental rhythm of the round for a while,” he explained afterward. “It took a little time, and unfortunately I was making some bogeys through that stretch. But then I started finding the rhythm of the round, the rhythm of competing and playing.”
Therein lies the silver lining.
For as many poor drives and uninspired iron shots and downright ugly chips as he hit, a score of 73 really isn’t too bad. It was as if he took a round of 79, threw some spackle and paint over it, and somehow turned it into a respectable number.
If he wants to post a more respectable number on Friday and beyond, though, he’ll need to figure out both the technical mishaps in his swing and chipping motion, while also getting into the “mental rhythm” of the round.
It all comes back to confidence. For two days here, Woods smiled and joked and interacted because he was confident in himself. On Thursday, that confidence evaporated into the desert air and the smile faded along with it.