This was hardly a happy return

Maybe this wasn’t a requiem for a fallen heavyweight, written in the rain and gloom of a fall afternoon at CordeValle Golf Club.

Maybe Tiger Woods will be back, as he believes — or at least says he believes — and one day will break the record he’s dreamed of since he was a boy: Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors.

But after a shambolic opening-round two-over par 73 at the Open — where he played alongside a 19-year-old college kid, Patrick Cantlay, who comfortably beat him by four strokes — has that day ever seemed so far away?

Woods arrived in northern California well-rested, injury-free and proclaiming that he’d finally had the time to master the intricacies of Sean Foley’s swing.

But on a dreary Thursday, he seemed still very much controlled by a golf ball that refuses to obey him.

Far from using this second-tier event as a springboard to greater things, Woods — who finds himself in a tie for 86th — will be fighting Friday just to make the cut.

He struggled as he has for most of the past two years to corral wild swings, many of them too steep — like the 3-wood he popped up on the fifth hole, leaving a six-inch long deep divot on the tee — or too crooked, missing to the right and then the left.

To compound his misery, he was awful on the greens, missing a putt on the third hole that wasn’t three feet, then three others throughout the round that were in the range of five feet.

The range where he was for so long as dependable as the sunrise.

"That’s probably one of the worst putting rounds I’ve ever had," Woods bemoaned afterward.

"I can’t putt the ball any worse than I did today."

Maybe it’s time for him to try the belly putter?

Woods didn’t win 14 majors and 71 Tour events by wallowing in negativity, and so it was hardly surprising that he declared that "the rest of the game was not too bad".

To accept that analysis requires a soft definition of "bad" and even he couldn’t ignore the obvious, like the quick hook he hit off the fourth, the three bunker shots on the second, or the pull on the 12th that led to a double bogey.

"I hit some bad shots, yes," Woods conceded.

"But also I hit some really good ones. But I got nothing out of the round on the greens. And whatever momentum I could have gotten by hitting good shots (was lost)."

He certainly had that momentum after the first hole.

Instead of the violent swings he’s been making for too long, he made a smooth pass at the ball with a driver, then from 135 yards in the short grass, dropped a wedge to three-and-a-half feet and made the putt.

"Must be the caddie," Woods’ new caddie, Joe LaCava, said with a smile and a wink as he walked past me.

But, a moment later, it all went pear-shaped and LaCava didn’t have much to smile about.

Woods missed wide right from the tee, leaving himself in a fairway bunker.

He only had 130 yards to the pin, but was so steep with the shot that he chopped down and came up 30 yards short of the flag, lodging in the greenside bunker.

From there, he left his shot in the sand, which speaks to just how far his bunker play has devolved.

Woods this year has gotten down in two out of the sand only 39 percent of the time, leaving him 170th on the PGA Tour. In his heyday, he was at close to 60 percent from greenside bunkers.

He saved a bogey, but then missed the short putt on the next to fall to 1 over par.

He had his chances to salvage something, missing a five-footer for birdie on the ninth, a four-footer for birdie on the long par 3 11th and makeable putts on the last two holes.

Afterward, I asked him why he continues to jam himself on the downswing, the move that leads to all those errant swings.

"For me it’s posture and the take-away. If I get those two right, I can hit any (trajectory), any shot I want," he said.

It’s hard to believe that it’s so simple, yet perhaps the greatest golfer in history finds it so complicated to execute.

Woods was asked whether he felt added pressure to perform given that Fred Couples chose him as a captain’s pick for the Presidents Cup in November, ahead of PGA Champion Keegan Bradley.

"I’m just playing to get competitive and win a golf tournament," he said.

"It’s not about validation (of Couples). It’s about going out there and playing, and right now I’m six (shots) back.

"I need to put together a good round tomorrow and gradually piece my way back into the tournament."

A task easier said than done.