Tiger shows rust, rallies for 73
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

On Thursday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open amidst the notoriously rowdy and large crowds at the Tour’s biggest “party” stop, Tiger Woods made his second competitive start in six months. And it certainly showed, particularly with his chipping — which apparently hasn’t improved much since the Hero World Challenge in December, where he looked more like a weekend hack around the greens, blading and chunking chips, instead of a fourteen-time major champion. Well, it was more of the same in the first round at TPC Scottsdale.

En route to a mediocre two-over 73, Woods started slowly, bogeying the first two holes and then adding a double-bogey on no. 4 — which made him four-over through four holes. For a moment, it looked like it was going to be an even longer day than what was already expected.

Woods fought back, though. He rolled in a birdie on no. 5 to get back to three-over. A great approach shot with an awkward stance, where he had one foot in the bunker and the other out on no. 9, left him with a routine chip from just short of the green, but he bladed the bump-and-run over the green into the collection area. From the shaved area, he opted to putt it and managed to save bogey.

At times instead of flopping the ball around the greens, Woods decided to keep the ball on the ground with bump-and-runs. He explained that he wasn’t feeling comfortable with his wedges.

“I was (using) a couple more 4-irons — actually some of my old-school shots from Augusta (National),” said Tiger after his round. “I’m just having a hard time finding the bottom. Because of my old pattern, I was so steep on it, that I have a new grind on my wedge and sometimes it’s hard to trust. This is a similar grind I used to use back in the early 2000s, but it’s a different grind. Some of my shots were into the green with tight pins, and either I’ll flop it or bump it, one of the two. I chose to bump it.”

Hate to go there, but does it sound like someone might have the chipping yips? That’s not a fun thing and I’ve seen players battle with it, but never did I think I’d see Tiger Woods catch the horrible endemic. He admitted to struggling with his mental game in general.

“I didn’t get into the mental rhythm of the round for a while,” he said. “It took a little time, and unfortunately I was making some bogeys through that stretch. But then I started finding the rhythm of the round, the rhythm of competing and playing, shaping shots and hitting them to, you know, the safety zones or being aggressive and taking on certain shots, you know, and getting a feel for that. That just takes time.”

As for the rest of his game, it wasn’t much prettier. He struggled off the tee for most of the day, pushing the ball way right. He explained that he’s still going through his swing change and had trouble settling into the day, which didn’t really happen until the 13th, where he made a splendid eagle (his first on Tour since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the site of his last victory).

“I got into the flow of the round,” said Tiger when asked about the hole, “but it was just about trying to be so committed to the swing change and do it. I’m so much more shallow now than I used to be, and it’s hard sometimes. Believe me, I can get the club to the ground sometimes. I’m so shallow, I pick it a lot. It’s the trust in that. It’s just different.

“I struggled with it at the very beginning. I saw a lot of balls to the right. Then I started to fix it on the back nine, but again, this is my second tournament in six months, so I just need tournament rounds like this, where I can fight, fight through it, turn it around, grind through it, and make adjustments on the fly. (My caddie Joe LaCava) was on me all day today. He said, ‘Don’t worry about getting your numbers perfect, because it’s not going to be that way yet. You’re still working through it.'”

Tiger also spoke about the reason he was missing it to the right.

“It’s the old pattern,” he said. “You hang on your left side, what we used to do. You pull left. So this is a totally different release pattern, and it takes time to be committed to it, especially when you have to shape shots, and I haven’t hit, shaped shots in tournaments, four rounds in what, six months. So it’s going to take time to get the feel of my hands where they need to be throughout the entire swing and shaping shots.”

How did he fare on the boisterous par-3 16th? Well, he made par, but not without a little bit of drama. He was on the tee and ready to hit, but when he started to take the club back, someone yelled, “Knock it in the tooth!”, causing Woods to back off. Okay, second attempt. Another fan hollered something as he began his backswing. Third try. The crowd simmered down for a minute and Woods successfully got through his shot and found the green — he two-putted from about 30 feet.

On the bright side, Woods is pleased with the progress of his swing speed.

“Look how far I’m hitting it now,” he said. “I’ve just got to get committed to hitting the club less sometimes. That’s the hard part. I bail out on a couple of shots because I just don’t believe I have that much speed on my body yet, but I do.”

Good news for Tiger is that he’s no longer dealing with the pain caused by last year’s nagging back injury — physically, he’s doing fine.

“I feel great,” he said. “Mentally, I’m a little bit tired from the grind of trying to piece together a round when I was five-over-par, and I fought back to give myself a decent look going into the weekend. I’m proud of that, because that takes a lot of mental energy to be able to fight back like that.”

Bad news is he has his work cut out for him when he tees off Friday morning for the second round if he wants to see weekend play. Tiger is currently T104th in the 132-man field, and since the cut is top 70 and ties, he’ll probably need to shoot at least a few under par to get inside the number.