Tiger Woods says he’s happy to be back just playing pain free, but he looked anything but in his opening round at the Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday. We’re supposed to have low expectations and last week at the Farmers Insurance Open, we spewed all the disclaimers about how long a layoff it had been and why we shouldn’t take anything away from one week (which turned out to be a missed cut).
After Thursday’s round, however, it’s hard to think about any of those disclaimers or caveats and not just be totally depressed about another — if we’re being honest — embarrassing round for the 14-time major winner. It’s another one in a pile of them over the last few years, a 5-over 77 with no birdies.
While his game was a mess and he’s going to be near the bottom of the leaderboard, if not DFL, that Tiger finished all 18 holes may be considered an accomplishment given how it started. It did not take long for the “Tiger Woods Withdrawal Watch” to be put back into action. In just his third round back after a 17-month layoff from competition, Tiger started the opening round in what appeared to be discomfort.
It looked noticeable even before he took a shot on Thursday morning (late Wednesday night back in the United States). He was walking slow and stiff around the putting green and looked especially deliberate on his way to the first tee. The conditions in Dubai were favorable and would not promote any kind of stiffness, like the colder and damp conditions last week at Torrey Pines. But Tiger was moving slowly, struggling to get out of a bunker on the first hole.
The first tee ball was a duck-hook left of left, that either had him grimacing in pain or squinting into the sun as the ball sailed off the fairway. We’ll interpret it optimistically and say the latter.
Here’s where that ball ended up:
It was alarming to see him moving in a way that looked so uncomfortable. This was not some over-interpretation — it was a consensus of those watching from afar, as Twitter lit up with panic and despair. Those on the ground said it’s the “new normal” with Tiger and he’s never going to look comfortable. The European Tour announce team didn’t pull any punches, observing a man that did not appear to be moving well. These are things that were uttered on the broadcast by the third hole.
- “I don't think his back's right. He's very tentative walking.”
- “I’m not saying he’s in pain, he just has a pained expression.”
- “It doesn’t look right to me.”
- “He just doesn’t look like he can make it happen anymore.”
Those early troubles abated somewhat, and Twitter estimates of a Tiger WD somewhere on the front nine never came to fruition. But there were signs of trouble late in the round again too, as Woods winced picking up his tee at the par-3 7th hole — his 16th of the day.
So the health, somehow just three rounds in after a cautious 17-month layoff, may be an issue (after the round, Tiger insisted he was in no pain at all).
Let’s set aside those concerns for a minute and examine the game. We can permit some rust and have low expectations. Even with that, Tiger was awful. The scoring conditions were perfect. There was minimal wind and this course presents several birdie opportunities and a nice chance for a mid-60s round. Tiger could do nothing and only two players on the course during his wave of tee times had a worse score.
No part of his game looked good. In prior starts at Torrey Pines and the Bahamas, you could cite bright spots. His short game was impressive last week. His ball striking and putting were fantastic in the Bahamas. All of it was bad on Thursday. He hit 10 of 14 fairways, 11 of 18 greens, and took 33 damn putts.
The putting was exceptionally awful. It’s hard to overstate how bad it was. He was nowhere close — not close -- to the hole time and again on these greens. These were putts a prior vintage of Tiger would repeatedly drain and he was two cups outside of the edge of the hole on Thursday. There were three holes in a row on his first nine with tentative strokes that left you incredulous. Early on his front nine, he even topped a damn lag putt that one TV commentator called the “worst putt of his life.”
I suppose the good news there is the putting can be an isolated bad round. Tiger can adjust to green speeds, if that’s all it was, and correct it.
At the 18th hole, his ninth of the day, Tiger laid up on the par-5 to set up a nice wedge distance into a front left pin. He hit it short, however, and the ball rolled back into the water hazard. Woods made bogey, his second such number on a par-5 on his opening 9. It’s inexcusable, even with the “rust” and Tiger looked pissed. He was duffing it on some of the easiest holes on the course in benign conditions. This time his wedge game looked shaky.
That was reminiscent of Tiger's 3 wedge shots into the water at Congo last year. To quote the inner monologue that escaped: "C'mon, Tiger."— Alan Shipnuck (@AlanShipnuck) February 2, 2017
In 28 rounds at this event, which he has won twice, Tiger has been over par just three times. His opening 5-over 77 is his worst round ever at the Dubai Desert Classic and only two — the great Marc Warren and Younes El Hassani — were lower on the leaderboard when Woods walked off the course. It’s just one round and we’ll cite rust again this time. Those will run out at some point, maybe soon if it keeps looking this bad. It was depressing and unnerving to watch from start to finish.
So the health didn’t seem great. The game looked rough. And Tiger himself looked miserable. There were a couple cracked smiles, but it was always sardonic about a putt that didn’t break the way he wanted. That was it. Aside from that, he just looked disconsolate over and over as a tee ball went wild or an approach shot missed yet another green. There were exasperated sighs, slumped shoulders, and a head sunk into his chest.
That may be what is most concerning here. Tiger insisted on patience after the round and seemed more upbeat than he did at any point during the 18-hole march. This comeback, however, could be a monumental grind and given all that he’s accomplished, how patient is Tiger going to be if it has to be like this for awhile? Is he fine with these unhappy slogs that leave him at the bottom of the leaderboard? And how many? Thursday it looked like he wanted to be anywhere in the world but in front of a camera playing golf in Dubai, and that was on the first hole.