KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – At an event that was starting to feel more like a sprint, Tiger Woods walked off the Ocean Course on Thursday with the look of someone running a marathon, both physically and mentally.
His shirt drenched in sweat after a scorching day at the 94th PGA Championship, Woods figured his first-round 69 at the season’s final major was exactly what he needed, despite a field-goal deficit to Carl Pettersson.
“I mean, geez, I'm playing with Keegan (Bradley) and he's 3 under through two, and you look up on the board, some guys are 4 under through six . . . so it's one of those days where everyone's going to shoot 6, 7, 8 under par,” Woods said. “But the wind kicked up a little bit and it changed things quite a bit.”
And as things changed, so did Woods’ demeanor. The sea was calm that day, as Seinfeld’s erstwhile George Costanza might opine, but Woods became more steamed as a hot, sweltering round progressed at South Carolina’s first major.
Woods was 1 over through his first five holes and hit just one green in regulation through his first four, but just as quickly he rallied with three consecutive birdies at Nos. 18, 1 and 2 after starting his week on No. 10 to move to within two shots.
If Thursday’s round felt like something less than what was needed, it was, at least statistically, something much closer to the status quo.
“Anything in the 60s is going to be a good start in a major championship, and I'm right there,” Woods said.
On this history is on Woods’ side.
In Woods’ 14 major championship victories he’s started the week with an under-par card on all but three occasions, but he’s been lower than 69 just six times. No one knows better than Woods that majors aren’t won on Thursday, which makes Day 1 at the Ocean Course something just short of a day at the beach.
Make no mistake, it could have been better. Always can be.
He made a mess of the fourth hole when he was fooled by a freshening wind and pulled his drive into a hazard left of the fairway for his only bogey on the inward loop.
“I was trying to hit a low bullet, and I turned it ever so slightly, it wasn't that bad but I turned it, and I figure if I turned it I would get down there 300 (yards),” he said. “Unfortunately it rode (the wind), and it was gone.”
He also failed to take advantage of Kiawah’s four par 5s. When he was collecting majors at an alarming clip it was his ability to score on par 5s, and specifically his record on par-72 layouts, that separated him from the pack. But on Thursday he managed just a single birdie on the par 5s, driving into “sandy areas” at Nos. 11 and 7 and failing to convert a birdie putt at No. 16.
Woods saved his round from a collection area short of the ninth green with what he called a “nasty” flop shot to 2 feet and spent the rest of the afternoon working on his iron game to “clean a few things up.”
But even that fix was encouraging considering his post-round clean up in recent weeks has fixated on a single ailment – his putting. On Thursday he needed just 22 putts and was encouraged by the work he did on his putting last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
“I putted well on the weekend (in Ohio), made a few adjustments Friday night last week, and felt like I hit a lot of good putts,” he said. “I started the ball on my start lines again and I think I made six putts over 20 feet out there or something like that on the weekend, which is good. Came here with the same thoughts, same feels, and I made a few today.”
Similarly this week’s PGA has a déjà vu feel to it for Woods. This week marks the ninth time in his career he’s arrived at “Glory’s Last Shot” needing a walk-off to get off the major schneid for the season, so if he was missing the look of a man who was pressing he’s come by it honestly.
Thursday’s 69 was neither perfect nor particularly eventful, but it was good enough to move him to within 54 holes of turning a good season into a great one.