Rozner: Healthy Woods makes return to Medinah
Given that he's played 13 rounds of golf in the last four months, and that he managed only 18 holes a week ago, expectations for Tiger Woods at Medinah on Thursday were appropriately low.
And he met them.
But considering that only three of those competitive rounds have come since the U.S. Open, which was two months ago, it was no small victory that he played pain free and barely registered a grimace during a 1-under opening round of the BMW Championship.
With enormous galleries surrounding nearly every hole, and with the support he's accustomed to in Chicago, Woods hit it stiff from a fairway bunker on the first hole and was quickly 1-under to start the day.
After nearly chipping in on the par-3 second, he played a safe shot into the third green, short and right of the pin, wanting nothing to do with trouble deep and left, but he drained a 39-foot bomb -- for the roar of the afternoon -- and he was 2-under through three.
Just that quickly, he looked like the Tiger Woods who has made Medinah his personal playground over the years.
But it did not last long.
From the middle of the fairway on the fourth and only 150 yards out, he fired directly at a dangerous pin tucked right and middle, and found the greenside bunker, short-siding himself.
The sand shot was sweet, but he missed a 7-foot par save and was back to 1-under, the result of a wayward wedge.
"Just not sharp," Woods said postgame. "I'm trying to make changes in my swing and it's just not quite there yet. I need reps and I just haven't really put in a lot of reps."
On the par-5 fifth, Woods piped his drive 321, giving himself a chance to reach, and indeed he hit the green in two, but his 20-foot eagle putt burned the edge and Woods was back to 2-under.
He scorched the edge again on No. 6 from 26 feet for bird, made a mess of the very gettable par-5 seventh with a poor drive and terrible wedge, settling for par, and nipped the rim again on the par-3 eighth.
He was still 2-under when he hit the shot of the day on the ninth, a vintage Tiger Woods escape shot from the right rough after an errant drive.
About 30 yards right of the fairway and with trees guarding the green, he smoked a 172-yard cut that never chased more than 30 feet off the ground, finding the green some 40 feet from the cup.
But he left his first putt 5 feet short and missed the par save, falling back to 1-under.
"I had 156 to the front and I hit a 4-iron, just a big carving cut," Woods said with a smile, "and from there I three-putted nicely."
On the par-5 10th, Woods reached pin high in two from 275 yards but was again short-sided, this time in deep rough, and a delicate chip left him 10 feet for bird, which he missed, giving away the second-easiest hole on the course.
On the 11th, a perfect 3-wood left him 161 out, which he stuck to 3 feet and that bird got him back to 2-under.
He nearly drained bombs on 12 and 13 and missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-5 14th, giving him just one birdie on the par-5s for the day, the four easiest holes on the course.
He missed an 11-foot par save on 16, but got up-and-down from the back bunker on the par-3 17th with an 8-foot save.
Only 154 out on 18, he hit another indifferent wedge to 24 feet and settled for yet another par, finishing the day at 1-under.
"I made too many little mistakes around the greens," Woods said. "I had a 3-putt and had a couple up-and-downs I should have made, and missed a few putts I have been making."
Woods played well enough overall to have found a 5-under round Thursday, which would have put him in the mix, but no part of his game was particularly sharp, which was a shock to no one -- including Woods.
"I'm trying to change my (swing) plane a little bit, trying to get back to how I kind of had it at Augusta," Woods said. "It was working pretty good there."
But when you don't play and you don't practice, it's tough to compete with guys tearing apart a defenseless Medinah.
"I'm going to have to shoot some low rounds just to get back in it," Wood said. "When I got out here, I thought probably 5- or 6-under would be leading, but once I got on the golf course and felt how soft the greens were, it's like, 'Hey, we've got to go. We've got to make birdies.'
"Seems like the whole field is under par. The golf course is soft. Even though it's long, it's gettable."
The good news is that Woods looked healthy, only once -- on the 13th green -- stopping to stretch out his back. The oblique that caused him to pull the chute a week ago did not appear to be an issue.
And with driver in hand, Woods was not holding back at all.
"Even though I pulled a couple drivers today, the fact that I was able to hit it felt good," Woods said. "I was able to make the proper swing and hit some of the shots. I was a little bit uneasy about that because I hadn't done it.
"I did it on the range a little bit yesterday. I hit a few drives yesterday for nine holes (in the Pro-Am), but how was it going to hold up when I had to hit shots? It's a totally different deal when you have to hit shots.
"But it felt good today."
Leaders Justin Thomas and Jason Kokrak are at 7-under, and there are so many big names between Woods and the top of the leaderboard that he's going to need a huge Friday -- teeing off at 9:37 a.m. -- to even think about getting back in the mix over the weekend.
But he's won two majors at Medinah, the gallery is entirely on his side, and he didn't appear to be in any pain Thursday.
He's not dialed in yet, but he is Tiger Woods and he's playing right here at Medinah.
As for walking 18 holes and watching that spectacle close up and in high def, well, there's probably worse ways to spend a day.