SAN DIEGO – The return of Tiger Woods felt more like a celebration Thursday at Torrey Pines.
Hundreds of fans lined up against the railing behind the 18th grandstand to watch Woods walk onto the first tee for his first PGA Tour event in 17 months. Thousands more stood behind every inch of rope from tee-to-green, and they were six deep in spots around the green. As he made the turn, workers filled three balconies at the Scripps Clinic. No other player brings this much energy to a golf course.
Now he just has to bring his game.
Woods battled to save par, and then he fell apart during a six-hole stretch on the back nine and stumbled to a 4-over -par 76 in the Farmers Insurance Open. It wasn’t his worst score on the fabled South Course at Torrey Pines, though it was his highest score of his career in the first round of a new year.
“I let it slip away in the middle part of the back nine,” Woods said. “And unfortunately, didn’t hit very good shots.”
Woods wound up 11 shots behind Justin Rose, who opened with a 65 on the shorter North Course with the new and smooth greens. Adam Hadwin of Canada, who shot 59 last week in the California desert, had the low score on the South at 66.
It was a rude welcome back to the PGA Tour, and to Torrey Pines, where Woods has won eight times as a pro.
He had not played on the PGA Tour since Aug. 23, 2015, when he tied for 10th in the Wyndham Championship. Two back surgeries followed, and Woods missed all of 2016 until returning at an unofficial event with an 18-man field and no cut in the Bahamas the first week in December.
This was different in so many ways.
Along with fighting his swing – he didn’t hit a fairway after No. 7 – and coping with thick rough he had not seen since the 2015 PGA Championship, Woods said he had a hard time adjusting to the pace of play from being in threesomes.
“It’s just weird to say this, but it was just we were playing so much slower than I’m used to,” he said. “It was just weird waiting that much.”
His game was greater concern than having to wait.
This was a battle from the start, when his opening tee shot went into the right rough and he hit a big cut closer to the gallery than the green. Woods did well to keep his score from getting out of hand early, with four tough par saves on the front nine to limit the damage.
He started the back nine with 10-foot birdie putts on the 10th and 11th holes, and with two par 5s ahead of him, starting to believe this could be a strong start.
“And it went the other way,” Woods said. “I hit bad tee shots and made a bad three-putt and laid up from the rough into rough. I just kept compounding problems and mistakes out there.”
Starting with No. 12, he played the next six holes in 6 over, with a double bogey on the 15th hole the biggest blow.
Woods snap-hooked his tee shot over the crowd and into a deep ravine, letting the driver fall from his hands in disgust. He couldn’t immediately find his ball amid sand dunes and ice plants, instead finding a spot to take his penalty drop. He hooked a long iron through eucalyptus trees into more rough and couldn’t get it closer than 20 feet.
At least he ended with a birdie and a smile, which looked to be more of a relief – not only for Woods, but for Jason Day and Dustin Johnson.
The star group sure didn’t play like one, with all three players frustrated at times by the bumpy poa annua greens in the afternoon. Day, the No. 1 player in the world, missed five putts from the 4-foot range. He opened with a 73. Johnson made a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 72.
None of them was better than 1 under at any point in the round.
“You’re concentrating extra hard out there because obviously this is a tough golf course, but you want to make sure that you’re playing well,” Day said. “Tiger’s back, the cameras are on you, so … I’m trying to do my best. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the way that everyone wanted to start, but I gave it 100 percent.”
Day asked for fans to be patient with Woods.
“Having 17 months off is a very, very long time,” Day said. “I think everyone was kind of anticipating what the comeback would look like. But once again, I said it over the last couple days, we can’t just break down everything he did today because it’s been 17 months. Let him go a year, let him play and go from there. … We can’t panic too much at the start of the year.”
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