LOS ANGELES – Tiger Woods’ idyllic start to the Genesis Open lasted all of 20 minutes.
With the morning dew still fresh and the air crisp, the tournament host stepped to the tee and promptly solved one of golf’s most-discussed riddles: the par-4 10th hole at Riviera Country Club. Woods curled in a 9-foot birdie putt, stepping to retrieve the ball before it had even disappeared below the surface of the hole, and left the green oozing with confidence.
His next shot sailed right, drifted a little more right and was never heard from again.
The entire series set the tone for an adventurous return to his former hometown event, a 1-over 72 that often felt like a strenuous effort simply to keep his head above water.
“I was at 1 under early, first hole, and all of a sudden I went double bogey-bogey,” Woods said. “I was like, 'Oh man, here we go. I’ve got to somehow turn this thing around.'”
Consider Woods’ opener a five-hour Rorschach test. Peer into the details for long enough, attempt to glean insight from a colorful scorecard, and you’ll eventually see what you want to see.
An optimist can point to Woods’ impressive scrambling ability on a day when he needed only 25 putts. For much of the morning, he appeared to be teetering on the brink of disaster, only to regain solid footing with one clutch par save after the next.
The driver was a chief area of concern at last month’s Farmers Insurance Open, but after switching to a different model, Woods seems to be slowly gaining confidence. Sure, he hit only 8 of 14 fairways, but several of his best tee shots came from towering drives that often kept pace with – or edged just beyond – playing partners Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy.
“He hit some great drives coming in. He drove it much better,” said McIlroy, who shot an even-par 71. “He hit it much better on the back nine, but saw some good signs. Just a better rhythm, a little bit better tempo from the top.”
Woods made five birdies, and were it not for that pesky tree on No. 11, he likely would’ve broken par. Then there was the shot he uncorked from the right rough on No. 12, a whipping cut with a wildly contorting follow through that saw him twist the club over his head after impact and served as the latest evidence that his recently-fused back is again ready for the rigors of competition.
“You know, it all started at Torrey,” Woods said. “Some of those shots I went after at Torrey, I mean, I didn’t feel anything, and that’s the confidence I need. That validation that I’m good, and I was able to find that at Torrey.”
Taken on an individual basis, they’re each a small glimmer that Woods is ready to contend again amid elite fields. But viewing the round from a slightly different angle reveals plenty of reasons for a score that was, after all, over par and leaves him in danger of missing the cut.
Racking up five birdies after hitting only seven greens in regulation is remarkable, and it is in fact a career-first combination for Woods. But a 7-for-18 GIR stat line is also a troubling sign of ball-striking inefficiency on a day when he missed five greens in a row at one point.
And yes, there was progress with the driver, but his irons were largely, woefully off-target. Woods’ worst tee shot of the day came with an iron in hand on No. 5, where his layup attempt left him in knee-high grass, and he estimated that he overshot his 107-yard approach on No. 3 by 10.
“That’s awful,” he said.
Woods conjured moments of momentum, but each and every time he failed to build them into something more substantial. He looked like, well, a guy who in many respects is still trying to shake off some rust and fine-tune his game.
“I’ve got to clean up my card,” Woods said. “Too many bogeys out there. I’m not really worried about 11, but I made too many bogeys.”
Throughout this latest comeback attempt, Woods has viewed his efforts with a long-term goal in mind. He remains steadfast on building a path with incremental change rather than sweeping shifts, one where he slowly but surely reassembles his repertoire.
His trip around Riviera was a wild ride, and it showed both flashes of the form he hopes to achieve and just how far away he is from displaying it on a consistent basis.
But given the choice after a round that was equal parts hat tipping and head scratching, Woods opted to view his opener through rose-colored glasses. And he wasn’t alone in doing so.
“You know, it doesn’t feel like five years ago that he won five tournaments and was the Player of the Year,” McIlroy said. “He remembers how to do this, and his body’s allowing him to do this. And there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll make a little bit of noise this year.”