tiger watch
September 17, 2020

U.S. Open 2020: Tiger Woods' first round plays in three acts, and last one was a real downer

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Jamie Squire

Tiger Woods plays his shot from the 12th tee during the first round of the 120th U.S. Open Championship.

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Golf rounds are long, but these are longer. Eighteen at a U.S. Open at Winged Foot, feels like 36 anywhere else. The round has chapters. It ebbs and it flows and then it ebbs again.

Take Tiger Woods’ five-hour opening round of this 120th U.S. Open Championship. Five birdies, six bogeys and a double. Two over through eight, one under through 11, one over through 14, even par through 16. The only number that matters: three-over 73 through 18.

He was right in the middle of the pack and eight back of playing partner Justin Thomas, who hardly missed a shot in an ultra-impressive 65, when he signed his card.

“I needed to finish off the round better, and I didn’t,” Woods said, remarkably calm after a rage-inducing double-bogey 6 at the last: an approach that pitched into the front of the green and tumbled down that famous hill, then a chunk from there, then an anti-chunk pitch to 10 feet past the hole, then two putts.

“I made a few putts in the middle of the round. Seemed like I wasn’t getting anything out of my round early on, and it flipped, and unfortunately, I just didn’t finish off the way I needed to.”

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It was a three-act ordeal.

Act I, holes 1-8—a grind. Woods started with a stress-free par at the first, but he needed two up-and-downs from bunkers for pars at 2 and 3. As Woods would be the first to tell you—he missed the first major cut of his professional career here in 2006, shooting 12 over in two days at the height of his powers—Winged Foot will only tolerate scrambling for so long.

He could not save pars after missing the green on both 4 and 5 and found himself two over as he stepped onto the sixth tee. The temptation, then, would be to have a go at the lone drivable par 4 on the course. The pin placement, back right, was particularly enticing, and Collin Morikawa played first and gave it a rip. But Woods, whose strategy always seems to skew closer to conservative, laid well back with an iron. Good choice, in the end, as he stuffed a wedge to seven feet and hearted the birdie putt.

He squandered a terrific look at birdie at the par-3 seventh, then got the worst break of the day at 8. A high cut driver pitched into the left side of the fairway and kicked directly left, almost with a vengeance, as though it was being chased. From there, he hacked out but could not clear a cross bunker 100 yards short of the green and had to struggle for bogey. Back to two over.

There was no pep anywhere near his step after he missed another fairway by one yard at the par-5 ninth, forcing a layup, then left his third just short of massive hump guarding the hole location.

“It seemed like most of my drives on the front nine landed in the fairway and ended up in bad spots, and I tried to stay as patient as possible,” he said.

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Jamie Squire

Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the 11th green during the first round of the 120th U.S. Open Championship.

That’s when Act II began. Woods poured in the birdie from 35 feet. At 10, he played safely left of the flag … then made another long one, this time from 24 feet. Back to even par. The hat-trick was complete with another birdie 11. Nineteen feet and two inches, that one. Woods played the 12th—the rare three-shot 5 in the modern professional game—perfectly, finding the fairway, laying up over the bunkers into the flat part, and controlling the spin on his wedge to keep it on the back shelf.

“I had a nice little hot run there in the middle part of my round,” Woods said. “Hit a really good putt at 12, thought it was going to go in and then it lipped out.”

He loved that putt when he hit it, and he took the first step toward walking it in, but it had just a bit too much speed to catch the high side and fall.

In to Act III. Woods would bogey each of the next two holes to fall back to the wrong side of par before a 40-footer found the bottom for birdie at 16. Even within the acts, there were ups and downs. He set himself for a classic U.S. Open par at 17—miss a fairway, hack it out, knock a wedge close—but misread the putt for his fifth bogey of the day.

The worst chapter was the last. Woods missed the fairway yet again, this time to the left, and did well to muscle an approach that carried onto the front of the green. But it rolled down, and we already talked about what happened next.

Woods is far from out of this, although it doesn’t bode well for his chances at major No. 16—each of the last 33 major winners were at or within six shots back of the lead after the opening round. And yet, there is some solace in knowing that golf at the U.S. Open is never linear, that each of the other 143 players in this field will ride the rollercoaster at some point.

“We have a long way to go,” Woods said. “There’s a lot of different things that can go on. I just wish I would have finished off my round better.”