PEBBLE BEACH — Things looked dire on the 14th. Tiger Woods had sailed his greenside bunker shot at the par 5 over the flag, in a spot deader than disco, pitching out of patchy rough to a short-sided pin that sloped away. He had turned a birdie into a bogey, possibly worse, and his fourth shot didn't wipe away that notion, Woods' ball barreling out of the heavy stuff and leaving a 30-foot sidewinder.
"I probably shouldn't have tried to fly it that far back, and I clipped it," Woods said of his botched sand attempt. "And I was just trying to hack out and take my medicine."
Woods was one under heading to the 14th, a solid score but four back of the early lead. Taking a big number on the third-easiest hole of the day would have been a dagger, possibly to his 2019 U.S. Open aspirations.
Not that it would have mattered, right? He completed his comeback in April at the Masters, one only his zealots believed could come to fruition. That victory provided him a life-long victory lap; whatever comes after is merely ceremony.
That is true. Except Woods, admonishing himself while circling his putt at the 14th, drained the par save to unleash a fist pump out of another era. The fans reciprocated with a roar of their own, riding the wave of emotion with the man they came to see.
As the yells continued, Woods walked off the green toward the 15th tee and slammed his putter face into his palm. Part flagellation, part empowering. In that moment, he looked miles away from one standing on ceremony.
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Tiger Woods shot a one-under 70 on Thursday afternoon. Even with scores bucking the U.S. Open's historical standard, it was a sound opening bid, five strokes off the pace of first-round leader Justin Rose. It was especially fulfilling for a player not particularly known for fast starts.
But that score doesn't come close to encapsulating the grind of Woods' round.
"It was just hanging in there, just typical of the U.S. Open," Woods said afterward. "It seemed like the majority of the guys were under par through the first seven holes, and then nobody was making hay after that. And it was a little bit tricky."
That included Woods, who had birdies at the fourth, sixth and seventh. A double bogey, however, was also sandwiched in that stretch, coming at the par-3 fifth. From 188 yards, Woods put a nasty hook on his tee shot, his ball landing off the grid 40 yards away from the green.
"A terrible tee shot," Woods remarked. "I was in between clubs. I wasn't committed to hit a 6-iron. I know from playing the practice rounds that I probably should hit 7 because I can hit it 15 yards short of the green, and there's a little shelf there that will funnel the ball onto the front part of the green."
All things considered, Woods hit an OK recovery shot, going over the green to give himself an uphill up-and-down chance. But his third went above the pin and he couldn't convert what was left, walking away with double.
The U.S. Open has a habit of inducing self-inflicted mistakes. The key is not allowing those biggies to snowball. And on the card, they did not, Woods keeping his clean the rest of the way home.
"It's just fighting it out and grinding it out," Woods said. "You just kind of hang in there."
A feat impressive in itself at the national championship. More so when considering Woods didn't have his "A" game, or even his "B".
Arguably the best second-shot player on tour—he finished first in strokes gained/approach last year, ranks first in GIR in this season—Woods and his irons weren't on speaking terms Thursday. Check that, they weren't speaking the same language. Woods hit just half the putting surfaces in regulation in Round 1 and finished 121st in approach.
"I didn't hit my irons as crisp as I'd like," Woods admitted. "I tried to miss the ball in the correct spots."
That's supposed to be capital punishment at Pebble Beach. What it lacks in distance is compensated in a demand for precision. When he lapped the field here in 2000, Woods owned a 70.83 GIR percentage … a whopping 22.42 percent better than the tournament average.
Yet the 43-year-old was undaunted by his iron play. He nearly holed out a bunker shot at the 11th. He left himself a two-footer for par on the 12th after his tee shot was 40 feet from the pin. He put a nervy chip at the 13th to tap-in range. Then there was the galvanizing par save on the 14th. For good measure, there was another bunker save at the tough par-3 17th after his tee shot was nowhere near the green.
It was a short-game tour de force. And also a stark contrast between the leisurely strolls of nearby beach patrons, the constant scrambling leaving Tiger drained after the round.
"I made a couple of putts, the majority of the putts were all uphill," Woods said. "That's the key to playing this golf course, you can't be past the flag. And if I happen to miss, as I said, I took my medicine and moved on and went about my business."
It wasn't pretty, and that type of scrambling display is unsustainable. Conversely, that 70 could have been 75, on a day when the national championship can't be won but can certainly be lost.
A quick turnaround awaits, Woods teeing off at 8:24 a.m. on Friday. He'll do so off the 10th, which played as the hardest hole in Round 1.
"We've got a tough par 4 right from the get-go," Woods said. "And we have the harder side to start off on, and hopefully I can finish up on the front side and have the full seven holes where I can get it going."
As Woods walked off the 18th, a fan yelled, "The GOAT is unleashed!" That wasn't quite right, not when Woods is standing T-28. However, on a day where he could have easily been tamed, Woods proved he's not ready to be tethered.