Woods' putter lets him down in Round 1
NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. -- You don't win golf tournaments on Thursdays.
That's true even if "you" are Tiger Woods and this particular Thursday is the opening round of the AT&T National, for which you usually play host and currently serve as the defending champion.
You can, however, lose a golf tournament on a Thursday, shooting yourself out of contention before the first day is complete.
It would be premature to categorize Woods' opening-round 3-over 73 here in the Philadelphia suburbs as the precursor to a continuation of his winless season, but at seven strokes back of the four-player tie for the lead, it left him in a precarious position with 54 holes left to play.
"I just putted awful, really. My speed was good, but I never hit the ball on line," said Woods, who needed 30 putts in the round. "It was a very frustrating day on the greens, especially how good I was driving it. I was driving it on a string all day."
This has been a theme with Tiger's game since he returned from a self-imposed leave of absence at the Masters Tournament three months ago. Like a guy trying to plug a hole in a dam with his finger, other leaks continue to sprout without a formidable wall in place.
In five previous tournament starts this season, Woods has witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly as results of such inconsistency. He owns T-4 finishes at the Masters and the U.S. Open (good), a T-19 at the Memorial Tournament (bad, by his standards), and a missed cut at the Quail Hollow Championship along with a withdrawal at the Players Championship (ugly).
Amid reports of a meeting with authorities regarding the controversial Dr. Anthony Galea -- "I cooperated and answered all of their questions; that was it," he said after the round -- and a large divorce settlement with wife Elin Nordegren, Woods is once again competing with more on his mind than just golf.
And yet, he's still in the mix with three rounds left to play.
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The fact is, Round 1 of a PGA Tour event is akin to the first quarter of an NBA game; it's better to be winning than losing, but neither is the ultimate determining factor in the overall final result. To borrow another sports analogy, Woods often has seen these rounds much like a heavyweight contender would approach a title fight: He throws a few jabs, does a little stick-and-move and feels out what the opponent -- in this case, the golf course -- has to offer.
It worked for a while Thursday afternoon, as he was buoyed by a 61-foot birdie putt on the fifth hole to a front-nine 1-under 34. Much like in many other instances in recent years, though, Tiger took an uppercut to the jaw late in his round.
After opening the back nine with four consecutive pars, he three-putted for bogey on 14, made bogey after needing four shots from 83 yards away on the par-5 16th, hooked his tee shot into the water hazard en route to double-bogey on 17 and yanked a 5-footer for birdie on the final hole.
It didn't quite qualify for a knockout, but it was enough to apply the standing-eight count.
After all, the puncher's-chance strategy is even more relevant this week. Woods' opening round at host venue Aronimink Golf Club was the first competitive one of his career on the venerable old-style track -- a situation that hasn't exactly suited his game in recent years.
Since 2007, he has competed in five PGA Tour-sanctioned events that were contested on courses he had never played before. He has failed to earn the trophy and the oversized check in each of those events.
Speaking of oversized, there are some odds stacked against Woods, who is currently winless in six straight PGA Tour events for the first time since January 2005.
Even so, he remains pleased with how he's hitting the ball with every club that isn't a putter. On Thursday, he hit eight of 14 fairways and 10 of 18 greens in regulation -- numbers that are solid, if not spectacular. Perhaps more telling was the fact that on multiple occasions, Woods reacted to a tee shot with audible disfavor, only to watch it either land in the fairway or closely adjacent to it.
"I played a lot with him before the U.S. Open and all the practice rounds at the U.S. Open," said Arjun Atwal, who owns a share of the opening-round lead after a 4-under 66. "He got better every day leading up to the U.S. Open. I know he didn't play a great final round or whatever, but he's been getting better. His ball-striking has gotten a lot, lot better."
Directly after his round, Woods confided that he would head back to the practice green to work on his putting stroke. For a guy who is never outwardly optimistic after a strong round and never outwardly pessimistic after a poor one, you didn't need to check a scorecard to gauge his performance.
"If I keep hitting it like this, I'll be fine," he said. "Putts will start going in."
Hey, it's only Thursday. Woods knows he couldn't have won the AT&T National already and is well aware he hasn't lost yet, either.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.
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