LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The swooshed ball came ingloriously to rest on a patch of dirt, between some weeds, in a wholly undesirable golf neighborhood.
Tiger Woods' hopelessly errant drive had hit a cart path and sailed over a temporary fence that lined the right side of the seventh fairway at Valhalla Golf Club. It ended up between a makeshift parking lot and a concession stand. Patrons busy getting their Bud Light buzz on were pleasantly shocked to see the world’s most famous golfer suddenly in their midst, close enough to touch and mortal enough to feel sorry for.
The pristine short grass was flyover country, 20 yards away from Woods’ ball. A GolfSwingShirt.com van was much closer. A few feet in the other direction, they were selling Kentucky Hot Links for $8.
Woods was making a hot mess of Valhalla’s hot links, flailing his way through the latter stages of a PGA Championship first-round 74. That left him three over par, nine shots behind the leaders and tied for 109th in a field of 156.
"It wasn’t very good," would be Woods’ succinct post-round assessment.
The par-5 seventh hole characterized the struggle. After spending most of the day hooking drives to the left, this time he sprayed one far right. Woods jabbed a trademark "TW" golf tee in the ground where it landed and took a drop at a break in the fence, then hammered a 3-wood about 230 yards to just short of the green – one of his better shots on the day. Behind him, the course marshal assiduously guarding the tee that marked the original drive plucked it from the ground and gave the souvenir to a young fan.
A mediocre chip left Woods eight feet for birdie – and like every other putt on the day, he missed. Tiger walked away from a hole that was playing third-easiest on the course with par, just as he did on the course’s other two par-5s.
The onetime king of the long holes got nothing done on the vulnerable ones at Valhalla. On the par-3s he was worse, playing those in 2-over par. His only birdie of the day was a chip-in on No. 16, which provided some sad context on Tiger’s plummeting career arc.
Last time Woods played the 16th at Valhalla, it was the crowning moment of his most triumphant summer. Locked in an unlikely playoff duel with unknown Bob May, Woods famously chased his birdie putt into the cup on 16 for what would prove to be the winning margin in his third straight major victory. He was an artist at the top of his game.
Fourteen years and a million miles from that apex, Woods again coaxed a roar from the gallery at 16. But this time he was just a guy shooting over par on a course that was there for the taking. And it proved to be the only Tiger-induced eruption of the day.
The roars have stopped coming. Here and everywhere else.
Truth be told, there was no reason to expect greatness from Tiger Woods Thursday at Valhalla. His mere presence in the field was something of a surprise, after withdrawing Sunday in Akron with back spasms. Woods didn’t arrive in Louisville until Wednesday and played just nine practice holes – and given the substantial changes to this course since 2000, that was insufficient preparation for Thursday’s opening round.
All total, Woods played fewer than 10 rounds between back surgery in late March and the start of this PGA. That may be more than he should be playing – but the time on the shelf has clearly left him unprepared to challenge in a major.
"The man looks like he needs to play some golf," said Padraig Harrington, one of Woods’ playing partners Thursday and Friday. "He looked kind of raw. Not enough rounds."
Woods clearly had little to no feel on the greens. His misread the speed of Valhalla’s putting surfaces all morning, looking terminally tentative with the flat stick.
"I never got a putt to the hole," he said. "For some reason I thought it was going to be quicker."
Woods’ predicament is exacerbated by the fact that he cannot practice the rust off on the range and the putting green between now and his second round. Proclaiming his back "a little bit stiff," he opted not to hit the driving range after his round, instead leaving the grounds to get treatment on his back.
Before Woods spoke about his lackluster round, Ian Poulter stood on the same podium and talked about the importance of being healthy enough to practice. Poulter had been dealing with a wrist injury, but after a solid week of work at Valhalla (a course where he played quite well as a Ryder Cup competitor in 2008) he was able to shoot an opening-round 68.
"The body allowed me to hit more balls," Poulter said.
Woods’ broken-down body has not allowed that in a while.
After only three questions, Valhalla personnel hustled Poulter away from the podium. The reason for the rudeness: Tiger was ready to talk. Even though his current game doesn’t merit bigfoot status, his career fame does.
But there wasn’t much to say. Valhalla was in a giving mood, and Tiger Woods took none of it. Friday he will be scrambling just to make the cut, and hoping not to visit the Hot Links stand again.
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