Hitting first almost all day, Woods signed for a 73 that looked like 77 but felt like a 67 when the dust and debris stopped swirling. Johnson pounded away with abandon while Woodland kept a weary pace following last week’s victory in Tampa. Both finished with 77s.
But the scorecards missed Thursday’s subtext. Lost amid the mania and minutia was a testament to the new Tour athlete. If Woods made golf cool, the likes of Johnson and Woodland are making it athletic.
The new face of golf is strong and agile and was on display Thursday, regardless of score.
Woods couldn’t help but think to himself as he gazed across the first tee on Thursday that he was seeing something familiar. The Woods-Johnson-Woodland grouping was not so much a conversion of the past and present as much as it was three sides to the same coin.
That mold is now slowly becoming the norm, thanks in no small part to Woods – the victim of his own perfect paradigm.
“Growing up we all looked up to Tiger. He’s changed the game for us,” said Woodland, who was playing with Woods for the first time on Thursday. “Growing up, where I’m from you play football or basketball or baseball. Golf wasn’t cool and he’s changed all that for us.”
If Thursday’s opening 18 was pro golf’s version of the combine it would be difficult, if not impossible, for even the most seasoned NFL scout to pluck a No. 1 pick from the 12:56 p.m. tee time.
Woods, the veteran with a proven Hall of Fame record but a litany of concerning injuries; Johnson, who at 6-foot-4 once recorded a standing broad jump of 10-feet-8, which was better than 80 percent of that year’s NBA combine, and Woodland, who once injured many of the ligaments in his right hand and yet still played an entire season at point guard for Washburn (Kan.) University with two fingers on his shooting hand tapped together.
“If you compare them to other athletes,” said Randy Myers, the Sea Island (Ga.) Resort-based fitness guru who works with Johnson, among others, “Dustin is a pitcher or Randy Moss-type wide out, the Scottie Pippen athlete. Woodland is a short stop or point guard and then you look at Tiger, he is what athletes looked like before. He inspired other athletes to join the game.”
Even Woods – not the most reflective, at least publicly, person in the game – acknowledged on the eve of Thursday’s opening round that his playing companions represented a new breed.
“The next two days is a perfect example of where the game has changed, where you've got two guys who used to play basketball are now playing golf and that's what I've been alluding to all these years,” Woods said.
“We are finally going to get athletes. Guys who can dunk. Guys who could have played baseball or could have played football at the (NCAA Division I) level, but no, they are playing golf instead. Now with all of that speed and power and fast twitch are playing golf. And this is a perfect example of it.”
And the phenomenon goes well beyond pure power, although Johnson regularly out-drove the elder statesman of the group by 57 yards (No. 4), 31 yards (No. 5) and 20 yards (No. 9), to name a few. The fearlessness that drove Woodland onto the court with a potentially career-ending injury at Washburn now fuels a game plan without boundaries.
At the par-4 18th hole on Thursday, for example, Woods played well back from the hole’s water hazard, hitting fairway wood like he has done so many times before, while Johnson hit driver high into the afternoon sky, playing a cut toward the water with a helping wind with a mixture of indifference and invincibility.
Watching Thursday’s collision of the Tour’s new “Bash Brothers” the NFL axiom of drafting the best athlete available, with no regard to position or pedigree, comes to mind. Making the perfect pick is virtually impossible. Having such a difficult choice, however, shows how far the game has come.
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard