Jack Nicklaus’ career did not fade away with a shot-by-shot Twitter dissection and hyper-analysis of each and every swing set against his prior overwhelming greatness. Tiger Woods may have another 10 years left on the PGA Tour, but, as he’s said himself, this is “phase two” of his career and the scrutiny under which he’s playing, established by 20 years of experience with the man, may not be fair and it’s not what Nicklaus had to face in the sunset phase.
That said, it was an indisputably ugly return to the PGA Tour on Thursday at the Farmers Insurance Open. We’ll give you the disclaimers that this was his first official PGA Tour round in 522 days and the expectations were low and he was on a tough course that also made world No. 1 Jason Day and No. 3 Dustin Johnson look mediocre at times. Ugliness and inconsistency were expected. And yet ... it got a little dispiriting on the back nine at Torrey Pines South, as Tiger grinded to not completely eject from the rest of the tournament on Thursday afternoon.
The same issues we’ve seen with Tiger in recent years were still there. He’s beyond wild off the tee. Every time he stood over the ball with his driver, you clenched up, peeked through the cracks of your fingers, and waited for what might come next. On the front nine, he looked like a guy who had recently played a round with Donald Trump, missing everything right (laugh at my Dadjoke please). The stats were not pretty — he kept losing the tee ball right and then missed the first five of eight greens in regulation, landing right each and every time in some of this gnarly Torrey rough.
Tiger often mitigated that wildness and those missed greens in regulation with stout short game work, which was another lingering question as he starts his 2017 comeback. Tiger did an admirable job hacking out of that rough, hitting an array of wedge shots to put him in par-saving distance.
The touch is there.— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 26, 2017
Tiger is scrambling around Torrey. pic.twitter.com/ne8P7Dcnvv
His only bogey on the front side came at the first hole, where he started his season with a bomb way out to the right that ricocheted around in a tree. The 1-over 37 front nine was probably the best he could have posted given the way he was hitting the ball.
Tiger may be the greatest player ever to scratch out a respectable or good score when his game is not there. The front nine was another example of that. The back nine was not, and maybe his 41-year-old body that hasn’t played a competitive round in 17 months wore down. It started well enough, with Tiger making his first birdie of the season at No. 10 and backing it up with another spectacular red number at the 11th.
Somehow, Tiger was in the red with seven holes to play and we started to feel the good Big Cat vibes. Then it came undone, in a hurry.
Tiger proceeded to play the next four holes in 5-over, a horrendous stretch that ended with a ghastly smother-hook drive left into some hazard that was previously unexplored on this South Course.
Woods had to take relief, just trying to get back in play near some fencing way down the left-hand side of the 15th hole.
The right miss was still there, and it led to a 13-year-old being dotted in the neck at the 13th, but now the hook left was showing up too. He came in with a 39 on a back nine that featured three birdies, an indication of how bad that stretch got.
It was the kind of shot-by-shot undoing that Tiger never really had to deal with in “phase one” of his dominant historic career but is now commonplace in phase two. Unfortunately for him, there are cameras on every hole and tweets documenting every single shot.
Woods finished almost dead last among the field of players on the South Course in strokes gained tee-to-green. The four-over round of 76 over put him in 133rd place as he walked to the clubhouse. He hit only four of 14 fairways and nine of 18 greens. It was the highest opening round of a season for Tiger, but this is a different time and place and he’s never had a layoff like this.
So the numbers are not pretty and it got a little gloomy on that back nine. But we have to recalibrate expectations, as hard as that may be as each poor shot is broadcast one after another for our viewing consumption and reaction. This was Tiger’s first round in 500-plus days, his wedges around the green looked competitive, and, as Nick Faldo kept noting, he did seem to have good control of his fade. The poa annua greens became bumpy and unpredictable late in the day. The rough is much tougher than you’d get at a regular PGA Tour stop and he was on the more challenging South Course. Three birdies were made and he completed the round without wincing in pain. He’ll get the easier North Course tomorrow with more predictable bent grass greens. There are disclaimers and positives and reasons why 133rd place isn’t indicative of more of what’s to come.
There are spots for concern too, of course, and the score reflects that. His swing also seemed delicate and deliberate, if not still cautious. If you’re a Tiger devotee, you just try to stay level-headed, not too alarmed, and figure it gets better with more reps. We know we’ll get to watch each and every blow now that he’s back.