Woods and McIlroy match each other in US PGA battle
Justin Thomas emerged on top in marquee group as Woods and McIlroy both shot 70
Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas walk down the eighth hole during the first round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St Louis, Missouri. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Just over two holes into his round, Tiger Woods was ready for a wardrobe change. “Hey, Joey,” he called to his caddie Joe LaCava, beckoning him back with a wave of the hand. The bagman’s psychic powers got the message without a further word needed. He dropped his bag, unzipped a pocket and reached in for a fresh polo shirt.
“He just makes me laugh,” quipped defending US PGA champion Justin Thomas, to Woods’s caddie, as El Tigre disappeared into a nearby portaloo reserved for the players some 50 yards in front of the 12th tee.
When he re-emerged, Woods donned a brand new Nike dark green shirt. Not quite an outfit change to compare with Superman, but something needed to be done at the time. Through two holes, Woods stood three-over-par and was disappearing down a deep hole with any notion of contending for a 15th career Major evaporating into the humid Missouri air stream.
Thomas had started par-birdie; Rory McIlroy had started bogey-birdie, but Woods had gone bogey-double bogey. On the 11th, their second hole, a short Par 4 of 362, Woods pulled his iron off the tee into rough and compounded his predicament when, with a short iron in hand, hit his approach short of the green and watched as it kicked right into the water hazard. His playing partners kept their distance.
So, three-over through two holes and Woods – who’d drawn the fans like a magnet would iron filings – needed to fight. He did, and by the time he was signing his scorecard at the end of the round, Woods was scribbling his name to a 70, the same score as McIlroy. Thomas suffered a final hole bogey to sign for a 69.
As for that shirt change for Tiger? “I sweat a lot, and I lose a bunch of weight. I have the hardest time during summer maintaining weight. No matter what I eat, no matter what I drink, I just can’t maintain weight. So this heat is one of the issues that I have. Normally I change before the round. There wasn’t a place to change on the 10th tee. So I waited until we had a little port-a-John there,” explained Woods.
So, no Superman moment, although there were some extraordinary deeds of recovery to follow.
The most remarkable of Woods’s came on the Par 4 14th, where he duck-hooked a drive off the tee into the trees; and then hooked his recovery shot into yet more trees, only to play an exquisite recovery – keeping his shot low enough to avoid overhanging trees, yet high enough to fly the bunkers guarding the green – to finish 10 feet from the flag. He holed the par putt, one of six one-putts on his front nine.
Woods wasn’t the only one to grind out a score. McIlroy, too, felt that way. With kinesiology tape strapped to his right arm – front and back – to alleviate any inflammation , the Northern Irishman reached had two birdies and two bogeys on his outward nine before reeling off nine successive pars.
Of the strain, McIlroy remarked: “I started feeling it the weekend of Firestone. Funny enough, it hurts the most with chipping because I sort of hold the angle a little bit. The whole forearm has been tight. I hit a lot of balls last week at (the Bridgestone) working on a few things, and it’s just a little inflamed and a little tight, but it’s fine.”
The standout three-ball of the morning wave finished with world number two Thomas getting the bragging rights, albeit by just one stroke.
McIlroy described the atmosphere as “crazy” but “cool.” Earlier in the week, Woods spoke at Thomas’s Champions Dinner about how generations overlap and recalled how he’d played with Jack Nicklaus at Valhalla in 2000, which was the Golden Bear’s last appearance in the PGA. It was also something which resonated with McIlroy, as he and Thomas got to play with Woods.
“Harry caddied for me in the 2005 Irish Open when I was 16, and then we’re walking the fairways in a group like this today, 13 years later. So it’s pretty cool. It’s always nice to be a part of these groups. It’s something that I have sort of got used to, and that’s a nice position to be in in this game. The cool thing about golf is Tiger is playing with us. So to see the generations overlap in golf is pretty cool.”
In fact, that overlapping of generations was encapsulated by Thomas’s inclusion in the marquee group. At that PGA in Valhalla when Nicklaus made his swansong and Woods lifted the trophy, Thomas – the son of a PGA club professional – was a seven-year-old watching Woods hole the winning putt on the 18th from the clubhouse.
These days, he’s sharing the big stage. But still conscious of Woods’s presence . . . . a little! “I’m worried about what I’m doing, and he’s worried about what he’s doing, and Rory is worried about what he’s doing. I’ve been fortunate enough to where I’ve played with him enough now. The first couple times I maybe played a little bit more attention to what he’s doing, but now this is a PGA Championship, and I’m trying to play the best that I can. So I focus on what I’m doing.”