As he waited for Adam Scott to return from drug testing, Steve Williams watched Tiger Woods storm out of East Lake late on Thursday afternoon.
Woods had shot a woeful 3-over-par round of 73, leaving him ahead of just one player, Jason Dufner, and — in a rarity for him — he refused to speak to the media afterward.
Woods’ tilt at the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bounty doesn’t exactly look good, though Williams warned about writing off his former boss.
“Long way to go,” the New Zealander said. “I wouldn’t put it past him to shoot 62 tomorrow. You never know.”
And Woods could, though 62 would require him to make a birdie, a feat that was beyond him in the first round of the season-ending Tour Championship.
In 1,083 rounds of golf as a professional, Woods had only six times before Thursday played 18 holes without making a single birdie.
That the seventh came on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon, on a course he likes, isn’t — despite Williams’ warning — the best of harbingers.
It certainly didn’t look like that when Woods stuck his approach to 6 feet on the first hole. But he missed the putt badly, setting the tone for the day.
He needed 34 putts and, to rub salt into his wounds, had to watch Henrik Stenson, who shook off a wrist injury to fire darts into East Lake’s greens. The Swede’s opening 64 set the pace.
Stenson noted that his playing partner appeared frustrated. A rather diplomatic analysis given he’d beaten him by nine shots.
“He didn’t make a birdie out there. That’s very unusual,” Stenson said. “I wouldn’t say he was playing bad, but he missed a couple of times in the wrong spot and made bogeys on three occasions, I think, then.
“I mean, if you’re not making any birdies, then it’s going to be a bad day, simple as that.
“On a good day, you might make one or two up-and-downs and then roll a couple in. We know how small the margins are. He could have been 2 under or 1 under with the same play if you just take your opportunities. Some days, it just doesn’t work out for you.”
And some days it does, like it did for Scott.
The Australian, who with a win here could overtake Woods as favorite for the PGA Tour Player of the Year award, opened with a 5-under 65 to be alone in second place.
However, his round didn’t start so well. He missed three greens with wedges and after making a bogey on the eighth and missing a short birdie putt on the ninth, even Scott’s laid-back temperament was being tested.
“It was a tale of two nines, there’s no doubt,” he said. “I didn’t start the way I wanted, and I was really frustrated by the ninth hole.”
But two good shots down the 10th led to a birdie that, Scott said, “calmed me down.”
“If a birdie can’t calm you down, you’re going to have to look for another thing to do for a living, I think,” he said. “I felt like I was playing well, but you never like to be over par. It never looks good.”
The birdie on the 10th got him back to even par. “And I could settle down and just play,” he said.
And play he did. Scott made six birdies on the incoming nine, shooting 29.
“I just went and played and played the way I felt I could,” he said. “I feel like my game’s in good shape, and it was nice to kind of open up a little bit on the back nine and take advantage of some good shots.”
When he was asked to describe his backside birdies, Scott allowed himself a smile.
“They were all pretty tidy,” he said.
He knows there are three more rounds left, though — a long way between a victory that would guarantee him the $10 million FedEx bounty.
And he’s thinking, too, about that Player of the Year race.
A decade ago they called him the next Tiger.
Now, it really could mean something.
“It’s an opportunity that might not come along too often,” he said. “I’m going to be working hard to try and make my case for it, for sure.”