Golf

Tiger impresses early at Players

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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.

 

So tweeted Lindsey Vonn on Thursday about her boyfriend’s start to The Players.

She may be new to golf — and have a rooting interest — but she wasn’t wrong.

This was, for many reasons, one of Woods’ more impressive performances. It wouldn’t have really been much of a shock to anyone had he not played well here.

After all, he doesn’t like the course — a fact reflected in his modest finishes at The Players — and, to look at the big picture, Woods has already proven he can win again.

He has three wins on the PGA Tour this season — six since March of last year — reclaimed the No. 1 ranking and was coming off a three-week post-Masters break.

The last post-scandal domino to fall is winning majors, and despite Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s hard sell, The Players isn’t a major.

Then there was the fact that he and Vonn spent Monday night rubbing shoulders with the Manhattan glitterati at the Met Gala.

That might have hinted at dilettantism, but instead it was all just background noise on a warm afternoon on Florida’s First Coast where Woods was at his most professional in shooting a 5-under-par round of 67.

“He came here with a game plan, and that is what you’ve got to do when you play a Pete Dye golf course,” said six-time major champion-turned-television analyst Nick Faldo.

“You can’t get fancy. He’s played beautifully. I’m really impressed that Tiger can take three weeks off and not look rusty.”

Despite a needless bogey at the last — depriving Woods of his first clean card at Sawgrass — Woods posted his lowest opening round in 16 visits here.

Woods — who had the lowest score among the afternoon starters — starts early on Friday in a tie for fourth, four shots adrift of Roberto Castro, a second-year PGA Tour pro who threw darts in the morning at rain-softened greens to tie the course record with a 63.

Also lurking is Rory McIlroy, the world No. 2 who’s slowly awakening.

After a horrid start to the season, the young Northern Irishman was at his sharpest on Thursday. He shot a 6-under 66; impressive given the fact that he’d never turned in a single round under par at TPC Sawgrass. Or made a cut.

Woods acknowledged on Tuesday that Sawgrass demands discipline. Left unsaid was the fact that he’s rarely shown enough.

Since he won here in 2001 — when he was at his most dominant — Woods has posted only one top-10 finish.

SNAP THIS

Tiger Woods, Lindsey Vonn get the jump on paparazzi by releasing photos.

Yet there he was on Thursday, plodding his way around Dye’s quirky layout, striking where he could — he made birdie on each of the four par-5s — playing defense when it was prudent. His short game was — until the last hole — very, very sharp.

It speaks volumes about Woods’ day that he wasn’t particularly happy with his game, despite his lowest round here in six years.

“Hopefully, I can play a little bit better,” he said. “Just overall, I need to strike the ball a little better than I did today.”

Off the tee, Woods hit only one foul ball — which must be some kind of personal record here — and generally found the short grass with fairway woods.

He’s far more comfortable hitting his new 5-wood — which seems to cover 280 yards with ease — than he is driver, but that’s not a problem at Sawgrass, especially given how far the ball was flying on Thursday.

The irons were inconsistent, though.

What was most heartening for Woods was that he shaped his approaches so if they missed, he wouldn’t short-side himself.

“Up-and-downs really aren’t too easy around here, but I left myself in some good spots where I had a little bit of green to work with, and I made a couple of key par putts here and there,” he said.

Indeed, he was 5-for-5 in saving par from missed greens until the last.

Even there, Woods was more unlucky than anything.

He launched a high arcing 8-iron from 200 yards, yet his ball landed pin high and bounced over the green. From there, he duffed a chip and missed a second chip for par.

“The grain snagged it,” he said with a shrug.

Was he surprised to learn that he’d never played a bogey-free round at Sawgrass?

“This is a tricky golf course,” he said.

“It doesn’t take much to make a bogey around here. I think that’s kind of what Pete had intended. I’m sure that most of the guys throughout their careers really haven’t had too many days that are spotless.”

But spotless or not, at least on this day, Woods beat Dye.
 

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