DUBAI, U.A.E. — Realizing just about every prior fear regarding just about every part of his faltering game—apart from his recent inability to consistently hit the fairway with his driver—Tiger Woods stumbled and fumbled his way to an opening 77, five over par, in the opening round of the Dubai Desert Classic. Despite semi-respectable “stats” in a round that left only three players from the relatively calm morning wave worse off than the 14-time major champion, this was generally ugly stuff.

Surprisingly, only four times did Woods fail to find short grass off the tee, hitting 11 of 18 greens in regulation. And although he accumulated 33 putts, that inflated figure was more the result of poor approach play than any inability to effectively wield the shortest club in his bag. By common consensus, the cumulative length of his putts added up to around 316 feet, an average of more than 17½ per green.

“I didn’t hit the ball very well,” was the 41-year-old’s predictable verdict. “I left about 16 putts short. I just couldn’t get the speed of the greens and consequently it added up to a pretty high number. I was just trying to hit shots, and I wasn’t doing a very good job. Near the end I finally hit some good ones, but the damage had already been done.

“I was fighting my ass off to try and shoot a good score,” Woods continued. “I was trying to get back to even par, and once I got back to even par, try and get to one or two under. I have to go out there and do it tomorrow, I have to execute. I need a really solid round and give myself more looks [shorter birdie putts]. I haven’t had many so far.”

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It wasn’t all about misdirection with the irons though. Again displaying a disquietingly cautious gait and a stiff and ungainly finish to his supposedly “pain-free” swing, Woods struggled to make any real headway on a day when he only rarely strung more than one or two good shots together. Almost every hole was marked by mistakes that turned birdie chances into pars and pars into bogeys.

There was a half-thinned pitch from hard pan to the (almost reachable) par-4 second. Three from the back edge of the par-5 third green provoked a loudly audible four-letter oath that at least confirmed a continuing passion for improvement. And the weak approach to the sixth green, off a long and straight 316 yard drive that actually split the often-elusive fairway, betrayed the lack of penetration that currently marks Woods’ shots. Inevitably, three-putts followed.

Ironically, the best putt Woods holed all day came on the 18th (his ninth), albeit it was a 12-footer for bogey after an unscheduled visit to the water in front of the putting surface. But the biggest smile of the day belonged to Woods’ playing partner, 22-year-old Matt Fitzpatrick. Competing alongside his boyhood hero for the first time, the young Englishman was positively giddy after completing his own round of 69

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“Playing with Tiger was just a fantastic experience and one I’ll never forget,” he said. “That was as nervous as I’ve been in a while. But he [Tiger] was brilliant. On the first hole, I turned to my caddie and said, ‘This is one of my favorite rounds already.’ I’m sure Tiger is going to come back [to his best]. Everyone wants to see him back.”

As usual, there remained more than a hint of post-round defiance from Woods, a justifiably proud champion. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, he claimed to have hopes of making it through to the weekend. Much less realistically, he toyed with the notion of a third victory in this long-standing European Tour event.

“Hopefully this wind blows tomorrow, and I shoot a good round and get back to even par,” he said. “That’s certainly not out of the realm of winning the golf tournament.”


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