Tiger Woods, as always, commanded the buzz entering this week’s FedExCup finale at East Lake Golf Club. By the end of his birdie-free opening round, however, the world No. 1 proved to be a major buzz kill.
Watching playing partner Henrik Stenson demolish the 7,154-yard, par-70 Atlanta track to the tune of an 18-hole leading score of 64 on an absolutely perfect day for scoring, the top seed at the start of the 30-player Tour Championship ended his day just a stroke north of DFL. The favorite to pocket the whopping $10 million FedExCup bonus and lock up player of the year honors at the start, Woods, by the middle of his lackluster round, had observers wondering if he were suffering lingering effects of the sore back that flared earlier in the playoffs, had mental fatigue, or was hung over from that two-shot penalty brouhaha at last week’s BMW Championship.
Whatever caused him to record just the seventh birdie-free round in his professional career, Woods wasn’t telling. The only golfer in the game without a bird declined to speak with reporters after his three-bogey 73, much as he did after that eyebrow-raising rules infraction in Chicago.
"There are a lot of people in this gallery that are kind of dumbfounded by what they’re watching from Tiger today," Golf Channel’s Roger Maltbie said as Woods prepared to sink a par putt on the par-4 13th. "This just doesn’t look like Tiger."
The last time Woods went birdie-less was during the opening round of the 2010 U.S. Open. Thursday's frustrating effort put him nine shots back of Stenson, who, thanks to his No. 2 standing in FedExCup points, drew Woods in Thursday’s final pairing.
Employing a new driver after snapping the head off his previous one in anger during the final round in Chicago, Stenson seemed to make everything he saw and will start Friday’s round a shot ahead of Adam Scott. The two will go off last in the second round, while Woods and Jason Dufner (74), the only player who had a worse day at the office than the 14-time major champion, have Friday's honors, heading out first at 11:40 a.m. ET.
Woods, who spoke Wednesday about how keen he was to notch his sixth win of the season and nail down his 11th PoY award, set the tenor of his day by missing a six-foot birdie putt on the par-4 first hole. Things got no easier, as he clearly struggled with greens that PGATour.com’s Fred Albers noted were "a touch slower and a little grainier" than they’ve been in the past.
While others seemed to deal with the changes, Woods, who notoriously hates sluggish greens, needed 34 putts to get into the house with the worst score he’s ever posted at East Lake.
A mishit off the tee at 18 pretty much summed up the day for Woods, who let it rip with a "F*** me!" after air-mailing a 4-iron to the back of the spacious green on the 223-yard par-3.
Woods also opened the door for Scott, who made birdies on six of seven holes on his back nine, to run away with the votes for player of the year. Phil Mickelson, the other contender for the season-ending recognition, played to a 71 and will start Friday’s second round in 25th place.