PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Tiger Woods’ round on Thursday at the Valspar Championship had a little bit of everything.
There was drama, excitement, frustration and even a moment of trepidation when the game’s most injury-plagued athlete took on an oak tree and appeared to lose (spoiler alert: He said he’s fine).
He entertained and aggravated with equal abandon on a demanding day at Innisbrook Resort, which Woods hasn’t seen since pleated pants and baggy shirts were all the rage.
There was even some vintage rivalry banter between Woods and his longtime antagonist Phil Mickelson, who won last week’s WGC-Mexico Championship to end a victory drought that had stretched beyond four years.
“I wouldn't be surprised if [Woods] went out and won this weekend to one-up me again,” Mickelson said Thursday on the Dan Patrick Show.
Seems Lefty’s not just a 43-time winner on the PGA Tour. Perhaps he’s a bit clairvoyant as well.
Despite the ebb and flow of Day 1’s outing at Innisbrook, which Tiger last played in 1996 when it was a mixed team event, Woods emerged with a 1-under 70 which left him tied for eighth place and just three strokes off the lead.
He missed as many greens (nine) as he hit in regulation, wasn’t much better at finding fairways (7 of 13) and seemed to follow every birdie with a bogey, and yet when he completed a chilly round on a blustery day he sounded like a man who’d just checked an item off his bucket list.
“It feels great,” Woods said when asked the state of his game. “Today was tough, man. I don't know if these people really understand how hard it was out there trying to pull a club, trying to figure out the wind direction, the gusts.”
The roller coaster started early, with a tap-in birdie at the first hole, followed by a bogey at No. 4. He birdied the eighth only to bogey the ninth. You get the idea.
There were back-to-back birdies at Nos. 10 and 11 to move to within two strokes of the lead, which is held by first-year Tour player Corey Conners, only to slip back with bogeys at the 12th and 13th holes.
As has been the case throughout this most recent comeback, Woods’ short game was vintage. He was 5-for-9 in scrambling, but he continued to struggle off the tee.
But if his ball-striking was a concern, Woods wasn’t letting on.
Although the Tampa-area stop was never a part of Woods’ rotation, he’s embraced the Copperhead Course, which ranked as the 17th-toughest on Tour last season, for what it is – a demanding test of every area of his game.
“I enjoy when par is a good score, it's a reward,” he said. “There are some tournaments when about four holes you don't make a birdie you feel like you're behind. Today I made a couple birdies, all of a sudden that puts me fourth, fifth, right away. That's how hard it is. It's the reward to go out there and make a couple birdies here and there and I like that type of challenge.”
To his point, Woods’ playing partners on Thursday – Jordan Spieth, the field’s highest-ranking player, and Henrik Stenson – combined to shoot 8 over par.
On Wednesday, Woods said he decided to add the Valspar Championship to his schedule after playing the Honda Classic, where he finished 12th. It was his second consecutive week of tournament golf and an encouraging sign that his body could withstand the rigors of competition.
With that box checked, he’s now turned his attention to honing his game with an eye toward the Masters. To do that he must test his swing under pressure, and although Innisbrook isn’t a major it certainly asks major questions.
His play at the par-4 16th hole was a microcosm of Woods’ eventful day. Hitting an iron off the tee, Woods watched it sail well left of the fairway. From an impossible lie and with a tree restricting his backswing he hooked his approach just right of the green. He also banged his arm into the tree, which prompted a wince from Woods and a collective deep breath from his fan base.
“The hand is fine. I didn't hit my hand. My forearm hit the tree a little bit,” Woods explained.
Woods would par the hole, chipping to 3 feet to complete the magic trick, and nearly dropped his tee ball at the 17th hole for an ace, a shot that stopped a foot from the flagstick for the day’s final birdie.
Perhaps it wasn’t Woods’ score that gave him confidence as much as it was his position on a leaderboard that was crowded with the relatively unproven likes of Conners, Whee Kim and Kelly Kraft, who were tied for second place and have a combined zero victories on Tour.
Or maybe it’s the progress he’s made with his game in an exceedingly short period of time that lifted Woods’ spirits on a gloomy afternoon.
“I'm pleased with every aspect of my game,” he said. “I drove it well, I hit a lot of good iron shots today and I had some good speed on the putts. Greens are a little bit grainy and I hit a lot of good ones. Spanked a couple here and there. I thought I really did well today, overall.”
Overall, it was impressive and irksome. You know, a little bit of everything.