LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tiger Woods surveyed his options from so far left of the fairway he was up to his ankles in grass in a hazard he didn’t even know was there.
He could take it over the trees and go sideways, but it might be tough to keep it in the fairway.
“What about left gallery?” Woods asked his caddie.
“That’s actually not bad,” Joe LaCava replied.
He wasn’t trying to hit anyone — that was just a good sight line. And it gave him the best angle to the green. But it spoke to the state of his game Thursday in the opening round of the PGA Championship.
He was so wild at times that his best option was to aim at the crowd.
Woods made only one birdie at Valhalla — a chip-in from a collection area left of the 15th green — on his way to a 3-over 74. That not only put him nine shots behind the early leaders, he was in danger of missing the cut in the PGA Championship for the second time in four years.
“It wasn’t very good,” Woods said. “A lot of bad shots, and I never got a putt to the hole.”
At least he still has his health. Woods said he was a little stiff from his most recent back injury Sunday at Firestone, though he looked the same as he has since returning from March 31 back surgery that kept him out of golf for three months.
But the “new normal” is nothing like the old Tiger Woods.
Even before his back surgery, Woods has looked nothing like the player who won five times last year. From the middle of the 12th fairway, he came up 20 yards short of the flag on the par-4 12th and had to scramble for par. He hit a spectator in the left hip with a tee shot on the par-3 14th that was 20 yards left of his target.
Woods played the back nine in 1-over 37, and then quickly went the wrong direction.
He smothered his tee shot at No. 1 so far left that it was in an area marked by a hazard. He followed that with a 3-wood that was a pure hook on the par-4 second hole, and Woods knew it was in trouble. He hung his head as the ball sailed into a water hazard. He had to make a 10-foot putt just to escape with bogey.
And perhaps worst of all? He even got sympathy from Phil Mickelson, his longtime foil.
“I thought he played with a lot of heart,” Mickelson said. “It’s not easy when your game isn’t where you want it and you’re hitting shots that you don’t normally hit to fight hard. I thought the second hole was a great example, when he hooked it into the water. A lot of guys would just play as focused, not put it all in the next shot. He grinded out a bogey. I thought that showed a lot of heart.”
Woods even playing the final major of the year looked unlikely four days ago when he withdrew after eight holes at Firestone with another back injury. He hopped down into a deep bunker after playing from an awkward stance, and said it jarred his lower back. He could barely put on his shoes before leaving.
Woods said it turned out to be a joint just above his sacrum, and once that was put back into place, he regained motion and was ready to go.
The entire round, however, looked like a grind.
Woods hit the driver nicely on the 16th and 17th, and twice more on the front nine on back-to-back scoring holes. He just didn’t hit it close enough or make the putts. The best putts he made all day were for par (No. 6) and bogey (No. 2).
The par-5 seventh hole summed up his day. The two fairways are divided by a water hazard, and only the confident players — such as Rory McIlroy — go down the left side and shorten the approach. Woods rehearsed his swing four times, aimed to the right and hit a huge slice that went over the gallery, off a cart path and through a gap in the fence toward a parking area. He originally though it was out-of-bounds.
It landed in a “Phone Zone,” and Woods was given line-of-sight relief from the fence. He hit 3-wood off the matted grass, through a gap in the gallery just short of the green. He played a delicate pitch-and-run to a front pin position. And he missed a 7-footer for birdie.
He talked about winning the PGA Championship, ending more than six years without a major. He was still thinking that way after his round, even though only 16 players from the morning groups — seven of them club pros — had higher scores.
“If I get under par for two rounds, that will be right in the ball game,” Woods said.
Based on his play Thursday — all year, really — that’s a big “if.”
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