Tiger Woods on his comeback: ‘I fought my tail off out there’
‘You can’t break down everything he did, because it’s been 17 months. Let him play’
Tiger Woods during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament. Photograph: PA
Tiger Woods has made more momentous putts on the 18th hole of Torrey Pines’ South Course, but he has probably appreciated few more than the 9-footer he rolled in for a birdie Thursday. The stroke capped off his first official round in 17 months and put a positive spin on a trying round of 4-over-par 76.
“I was fighting out there trying to get my ball around the golf course and score,” said Woods, who bogeyed the first hole at the Farmers Insurance Open and played a stretch of six holes on the back nine in 6 over. Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, kept counseling patience, advice that Woods accepted through gritted teeth.
“I didn’t quite smile at him a few of those times he said that,” Woods said. Before Woods made his birdie putt, the other players in his group, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, rolled in birdie attempts, ratcheting up the pressure. Johnson, who is third in the world rankings, shot an even-par 72. The top-ranked Day carded a 73.
Day, who has been No. 1 for 48 nonconsecutive weeks, was No. 3 when Woods played his last official 72-hole PGA Tour event, at the Wyndham Championship in August 2015. “I was excited to see how he was going to play,” Day said. “Having 17 months off is a very long time. I think everyone was kind of anticipating what the comeback would look like.”
He added: “You can’t break down everything he did today, because it’s been 17 months. Let him play and go from there. You can’t panic too much at the start of the year.”
A flock of fans followed Woods’ group from hole to hole. The crowd included retired NBA journeyman Tracy Murray, whose 6-foot-7 height allowed him to track the flight of Woods’ shots better than most. Murray, a native of Los Angeles who is a radio color analyst for men’s basketball at UCLA, his alma mater, worked the Bruins’ game against their crosstown rival Southern California on Wednesday night. Early Thursday, he made the two-hour drive, arriving in time to watch Woods’ front nine.
Murray, whose 12-season playing career ended in 2007, was not surprised Thursday when Woods, 41, chased his two birdies with three consecutive bogeys and a double bogey. Speaking from experience, Murray said the challenge after an extended injury-related layoff was in finding one’s rhythm and managing one’s emotions.
“It takes a lot of mental toughness to push through thoughts and things when you haven’t been in the competitive arena for a while,” Murray said. Day, who grew up idolising Woods and now views him as a mentor, has had no such layoff recently. Early Thursday, though, it appeared as if the one-time student was straining to impress the teacher. On Day’s second swing of the day, he stared down someone who had distracted him. Day was 2 over after three holes and looked tight. But after birdies on five and six, he settled down.
From outside the ropes, Murray said he could also relate to Day. It reminded Murray of a summer that he had spent playing pickup basketball with Michael Jordan while Jordan was in Los Angeles shooting the 1996 movie “Space Jam.” “He’s the greatest player of your era,” Murray said, “and you want to show that you deserve his respect.”
The players were not the only ones who needed a while to adjust to the return of Woods and his followers. The volunteer marshals were slow on the first few holes to corral the crowds, which were bigger than on any day at the tournament since Woods’ seventh victory in the event, in 2013.
At the par-5 sixth, two spotters failed to track Woods’ errant second shot. Two dozen people, including Day’s caddie, Colin Swatton, hunted for Woods’ ball, which was found nestled in the rough. Woods said Wednesday that one of the great unknowns he would confront this week was how he would fare on shots out of the rough.
“The last time I think I played high rough was probably Whistling Straits,” Woods said, referring to the 2015 PGA Championship, won by Day. After chipping out of the rough on No. 6 and over a greenside bunker, Woods had his first legitimate birdie putt of the round, from 16 feet, which he hit 2 feet past the hole. “I fought my tail off out there,” Woods said, adding, “I just kept compounding problems and mistakes.”