JERSEY CITY, N.J. — A day after he stopped hitting his driver and irons midway through his practice round because of back stiffness, Tiger Woods looked physically fine Thursday morning at Liberty National. His golf game, not so much.
The former might put the latter into question, but Woods' health was not in doubt in Round 1 of the Northern Trust. The swings with his driver were loose and powerful, his tee shots routinely rolling past playing partners Scott Piercy and J.T. Poston. His stride, the one that looked tired and weighted on Wednesday, was purposeful and, perhaps more important, wince-free.
Unfortunately, there's looking the part and playing the part, and in that regard, Woods came up short.
"I didn't play well," Woods said after his round. "Just one of those things where I just didn't hit any good shots and didn't make any putts. Other than that, added up to a round that broke 80."
Although far from auspicious, it was also not a stumbling start for Woods. Beginning on the back nine, Woods made two no-nonsense pars at the 10th and 11th. The 12th was the first sign something was amiss. Short-siding himself in a bunker, Woods raced his third shot through the green and into another bunker, forcing him to get up and down for bogey on one of Liberty's easier par 4s.
That mistake was erased at the par-5 13th, where a pummeled drive left Woods with 217 yards into the green. From there, he hit a marvelous iron to 15 feet. The eagle putt just missed, allowing Woods to walk off with an easy birdie.
For the myriad of captivating views at the Jersey City property, the 14th provides the best vista of all. The short par 3 hugs the New York Upper Bay, with the Statue of Liberty standing watch. But what unfolded for Woods at the 14th was hardly picturesque.
On Thursday, this par 3 measured 140 yards. Woods' approach traveled 157, settling into a ditch in a hazard. After taking a penalty drop, Woods proceeded to flub the chip, and his fourth wasn't much better. All things considered, it was a nice conversion on a testy four-footer, yet that hardly alleviated the pain of a double bogey.
"I was just off," Woods said. "I pulled a little 9. I was trying to hit a flat 9 in there, and I got steep on it. Pulled it a little bit."
Woods compounded the issue with a poor drive at the par-4 15th, forcing a lay-up. He was unable to get up and down for par.
But on the drivable 16th hole, Woods missed a six-footer for birdie, chasing after it in disgust as soon as it left the putterface. At the 17th, Woods' approach again left him with a short-sided bunker shot, and his seven-footer to save par didn't drop.
He found another bunker greenside at the 18th, although this time he was able to avoid bogey. Nevertheless, with conditions—wet terrain in warm weather and zero wind—that left Liberty National as defenseless as it'll get, Woods made the turn in four over. Two groups ahead, Troy Merritt had turned in a front-nine 30, and followed with a birdie at the first. After nine holes, Woods was 11 shots back.
"We all knew it was soft out here with the rain last night," Woods said. "It's certainly out there. Certainly gettable. Greens are soft. Fairways are soft. You can play aggressively and not have any real ramifications for playing aggressive."
To his credit, Woods pressed on, and his energy level remained solid. He birdied the first and fifth holes, and his iron game—previously erratic as a 5-year-old swinging at a piñata—began to cooperate.
However, his putter still did not, with Woods missing a three-footer for par on the third and an eight-footer for birdie at the fourth. When his birdie try at the par-5 eighth refused to fall, Woods incredulously looked at no one in particular, wondering what he had to do to get one to fall. He finished T-55 out of 56 morning players in putts per green in regulation, and last in strokes gained/putting.
"I had my opportunities to turn it around, and I didn't do it," Woods said.
The final damage: a four-over 75. It was the highest round of the first wave, behind only Patrick Rodgers, and a score that leaves Woods 13 strokes behind Merritt through the morning tee times.
Whether it was Wednesday's soreness or the lack of reps, but it was as bad as Woods has been this season comparative to his peers (-6.013 strokes gained). Which happens, banged-up body or not. That's golf, even for the greats.
It's also easy to dismiss these struggles, Woods' Masters win providing a lifetime of latitude going forward. In a sense, it has.
But Woods remains a competitor, arguably the sport's most fiery in history, and he's nowhere near the ceremonial stage of his career. There's always another obstacle to confront. Which is what makes this week and next so compelling. Coming off a rough Open appearance, how will Woods respond?
Perhaps an afternoon breeze keeps the red numbers in check, but Woods will need to go low on Friday afternoon to sniff the weekend. Should he miss the cut, Woods will have no room for error in Chicago, needing a strong performance at the BMW Championship to earn a spot at East Lake to defend his Tour Championship title.
"I'm going to have to figure out a way to get this thing under par and hopefully move on and have a chance on the weekend to keep progressing and keep going lower," Woods said. "But I've got to get into the red at the end of the day tomorrow for sure."