In his 14 years on Tour, Tiger Woods had never played in the first group on a Thursday. Until today. And he enjoyed putting on the impeccable greens.
Just three days after his divorce was finalized, Tiger Woods shot a six-under 65, his lowest round of the year, in the opening round of The Barclays for a share of the early clubhouse lead with Ryan Palmer. He only missed one fairway (and by, like, 2 paces) and two greens. (It’s going to take a lot more than one good round for me to say, “TIGER’S BACK!” Perhaps if he’s still atop the leaderboard come Sunday, then it can be put under consideration.) After Woods left the scoring room, he walked out to begin a series of interviews. The first was for radio. But he stopped to sign an autograph for a young boy who snuck up next to him. When asked if it was his best round of the year (not just scoring-wise), he said, “Absolutely.”
Perhaps Tiger, the born-again Buddhist, really has been working on his meditation lately. He was focused — in a way we hadn’t seen since last year. He was deliberate. He took his time. He set up and hit every shot with intention. In other words, he was Zen-like. There was a curious calmness to him. Or his mind is just back in the game since he’s starting a new chapter.
After missing his approach shot on 12 (where he made his only bogey of the day), he scolded himself, “Back off Tiger, back off Tiger.” (Euphemism for “Jesus Christ, Tiger”? Kidding!)
“As I was talking the club back, you hear the gallery roar to my right,” Woods explained. “And there was another player in the field who hit a great shot. I completely forgot what I was doing with the shot, where my fields were, where the club had to be, the shape, the shot, everything I totally blanked out on the shot and hit it into the left bunker. I should have backed off, gathered myself get my field back and shape the shot correctly on the center of the green which is where I was trying to go.”
Following his only slip in concentration all day that led to his lone bogey, he birdied the next two holes.
Making his way to the next stop for his interview with the Golf Channel, a subdued, focused but polite Woods surprisingly signed a handful of autographs for a kid and some middle-aged men, who were so excited that you might have thought they had won the lottery. I was taken aback. I turned to a veteran writer and asked, “This isn’t normal, is it? He doesn’t usually sign autographs in these situations, right?” He verified that it was out of character. The “old” Tiger would have kept walking. In other words, Tiger has kept his vow to acknowledge fans more. But he was also in a really good mood.
“It feels good. It feels good to be able to control my ball all day like this. I haven’t done that. The one time I hit the ball like this was the nine holes at the US Open on Saturday. I hit it flush all day today and that feels good. It feels good to have the things I’m working on starting to feel more natural.” I walked with him when he birdied the final three holes at Pebble and the atmosphere was absolutely mind-blowing.
Coincidentally enough, I followed him for his last three holes in his flawless round today at Ridgewood. (What’s the prize for that?!) When I initially saw the Tiger mob on the 16th tee, it was smaller than I’d imagined. But then I realized this was Thursday, the first round at The Barclays at 11:00a.m. I guess I’m not used to seeing a Tiger gallery only three-deep.
“It starts today, Tiger!” yelled a fan after Woods knocked his approach on the 18th to six feet. As he watched the ball in the air, I watched him. I didn’t need to look where it landed because I could tell from his body language that he liked it. The gallery did, too.
When Woods stepped up to his birdie putt, the quiet rumblings in the crowd immediately stopped on command — like someone pressed the mute button. He drained it. Appropriately-sized fist pump.
“Where are those sponsors now? They’re going to come running back,” a fan yelled.
The roars and the atmosphere didn’t have the same magic that was present at Pebble Beach in those last three holes, but that was a Saturday at the US Open. It was reminiscent of it, though. It wasn’t spine-tingling, but it also didn’t feel volatile.
Hello, just-divorced Tiger.