Tiger Woods may not like TPC Sawgrass all that much, but you would never know it from the surgical precision with which he dissected Pete Dye’s dastardly design on Thursday.
Woods, who fired a nearly flawless opening-round 5-under 67, got off to a good start to his 2013 Players Championship, with a birdie on the second hole of his opening round. The world No. 1, who has made no secret of his discomfort with the tricky home of the men’s so-called "fifth major," had to wait until the ninth to can another, but from there he went on a birdie barrage to card his first-ever sub-70 opening round at Sawgrass.
The 14-time major champion, who made four straight birds between Nos. 9 and 12, added another on the par-5 16th, and almost posted his first bogey-free round at Sawgrass. Hitting 10 of 14 fairways and 12 greens in regulation, as well as making 11 one-putts certainly didn’t hurt on a day when Woods needed a strong showing.
By the time he teed off as part of the afternoon wave, Tiger was already looking up at early clubhouse leader Roberto Castro, who tied the course record with a 63. Even good pal Rory McIlroy, who has missed the cuts in all three previous appearances at The Players, went low, posting his first sub-par round (66) at The Players.
"I felt I had to go out there and shoot something in the 60s today," Woods told Golf Channel’s Steve Sands after his round. "Most of the guys were under par in that morning session."
The winner of 77 PGA Tour events has had his own well-documented issues on the track, with just one win (2001), sub-par opening rounds only seven times in 15 starts before Thursday, and a pre-Thursday career scoring average of 71+, according to Golfweek. He also had some concerns early on, when the wind seemed to bother him midway through his front nine and he missed a three-foot birdie putt on No. 7.
"When you get the greens firm and fast, and longer rough, where you have to pay a penalty for hitting it in the rough, and then have to worry about the swirling winds, it’s just not [Tiger’s] cup of tea," NBC/Golf Channel analyst Johnny Miller observed about why Sawgrass has so nettled Woods. "No cream and sugar on that one."
But playing strategically, with his driver in the bag for most of the day to ensure he stayed in the fairway, put him in good position to make a run up the leader board.
"I like the strategy for this golf course," Miller’s colleague Nick Faldo said. "It just makes sense. He can 3-wood it, 9-iron it around the whole golf course. I was half-joking [during a conference all earlier this week], said, ‘throw the driver out and just throw another wedge in.’
"Why not?" Faldo mused. "Easy to play this course without a driver."
And that’s just what Woods did, as he unleashed the big stick rarely, and for good reason, as he proved on No. 14, when he inexplicably went with his driver and lost the ball way right for his first wayward shot of the day. But with two favorable drops -- from the cart path on his second shot, and a sprinkler head on his third (armchair refs: put down those iPhones!) -- and the rest of his game in sync, Woods got it up and down for a (yawn!) tap-in par.
The diabolical par-3 17th was almost another story. Woods’ short iron to the green on which he made his legendary "better than most" shot was surely better than very few, as it drifted to the lower right side of the green, some 55 feet from the cup.
The way his flat stick was working, however, Woods, who has had five 3-putts on the hole in his career, made the downhill, right-to-lefter look easy, as he two-putted for par.
Not so much on No. 18, where Woods’ approach shot was so hot, it fell off the right side of the green. He proceeded to chunk his first chip shot and missed his second to the right of the cup for the lone bogey on his card.
"Hopefully, [tomorrow] I can play a little bit better than I did today," Woods said. "The ball was flying forever out there today in the afternoon. I had 200 yards on the 18th hole and I hit just a little 8-iron and that flew flag high, so the ball was traveling."
Woods, who entered the week with three wins this season, will start his second round on Friday at 8:39 a.m. ET on the 10th tee, just four shots off the pace.