Tiger Woods Is at Ease and in Contention After Layoff

Tiger Woods Is at Ease and in Contention After Layoff

Woods opened his first round at the Memorial Tournament with two birdies on his first three holes. He is five strokes off the leader, Tony Finau.

“It’s been a while,” Woods said with a grin after his round on Thursday. “I felt the same eagerness, edginess, nervy-ness. And it was good. I was a little bit rusty, but overall it was a good start.” Credit…Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

After playing his first hole in the PGA Tour in 151 days, Tiger Woods crashed the driver 327 yards from the tee on Thursday, threw his shot from 145 yards to 10 feet, then drowned in curling down a birdie.

He walked out of the green with a dazed expression that seemed to say, what? Should it be difficult?

Two holes later, he was in it again, knocking a wedge out of 107 yards, landing on a devilishly outlined green, and stopped 13 inches from the hole for another bird. Woods’ return after a five-month layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic was about 45 minutes, and he was two years old at par.

The rest of the day was not exactly a tumultuous game at the top of the leaderboard for the Memorial, where Woods is the five-time champion. But it was a success anyway, especially when you consider that Woods looked healthy and his pitching relaxed and smooth. He finished the day at Muirfield Village Golf below 71, enough to tie him 18th, five strokes behind first-round leader Tony Finau.

“It’s been a while,” Woods said with a grin afterward. “I felt the same eagerness, edginess, nervy-ness. And it was good. I was a little bit rusty, but overall it was a good start.”

It was also Woods’ first round in a fanless environment that the PGA Tour had, as it resumed play on June 11 after a 90-day hiatus.

At times he seemed almost preoccupied with the lack of distractions in the new high-end golf setting. Playing in a silent Hollywood recording studio, where the cacophony of chirping birds drowned out the sound of crunching iron shots, Woods often searched the empty hillsides next to the fairways as if he longed for the galleries he usually attracted.

Fans are technically not allowed at this weekend’s Memorial Tournament, but spectators managed to sneak a glimpse of his opening round. Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

When nine people scrambled onto the back porch of the house next to the eighth fairway, they shouted at him, and he stopped long enough to wave his left hand over his head and smile. From time to time, he looked into the eyes of the roughly two dozen tour officials, volunteers and media who followed him, which was quite unusual – but never, as a professional, such a small flock of people accompanied him on the tour.

“It’s a different feel,” Woods conceded. “But a new reality.”

However, known for his tough determination, Woods insisted that he never lost his core focus.

“I didn’t have any issues with energy or not having fans’ reactions out there,” he said, adding that he even enjoyed the less chaotic walks between holes since the lack of spectators meant golfers could take the most direct routes from greens to tees.

“Usually, I’m meandering roundabout,” he said with a laugh.

Woods had four birds and three scarecrows on Thursday, suitable for a day that was uneven. He drove the discs to the middle of the fairway, but he blabbed the chips and missed the many varied bird opportunities that were often created by the addictive game of iron. But Woods’ return to the tour had more to do with assessing his fitness level and general health in his game than his fitness score.

So Woods’ 18 holes should fully support his legion of fans. His swing was compact, unhurried, and powerful. He walked through steep and undulating terrain without any of the awkward, awkward steps so evident during his last tournament in mid-February, when he finished last among golfers to hit and later blamed the rigidity on his surgically repaired back. Woods’ iron play kicked in and he finished eighth on Thursday on shots from approaches to green.

The vast majority of Woods’ failures were at or near the greens. After two birds in the first three holes, Woods didn’t have another bird until the fifth hole of the 5th par, when he nearly concealed a third shot from 109 yards away, but instead left him four inches from the cup. But in the next pit, par-3, Woods knocked out a sand wedge from the green bunker that soared over the green one, and he scrambled to make the bogeyman. He missed a 22-foot shot for a birdie on hole 17 after a terrific recovery from a fairway bunker, and then landed a nimble shot on hole 18 and sank a spinning 14-foot bird to close his round.

Climbing the hill that surrounds the final green with a big smile, Woods looked happy to be back. He was asked if he expected any difficulties playing and completing 18 holes for the second day in a row.

“No,” Woods said emphatically, and with haste. “I’ve gotten ready for this.”

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