Tiger’s putter goes limp in Buick first round

Even the optimist within Tiger Woods had to accept the dark truth after a flaccid 71 in the opening round of the 52nd and last Buick Open left him eight shots off the lead and with yeoman’s work to do just to make the cut at an event many expected him to win.

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“Probably one of the worst putting days I’ve ever had,” Woods lamented as he languished in a tie for 95th.

Probably, he didn’t need to use the qualifier.

For the record, Woods had 32 putts, which should’ve been 33 given the bomb he made to save par on the short fourth hole was pulled but he misread the break, he admitted later, and it went in anyway.

Maybe it’s too alarmist to panic — this is, after all, only the Buick Open — but it’s certainly not out of order to raise eyebrows.

On the heels of what was only his second missed cut as a professional at a major less than two weeks ago, you’d think that Woods would’ve wanted to remind all the pretenders that there’s still only one King of Golf.

Especially on a course he’s loved and has historically loved him back.

Woods has won at Warwick Hills twice in eight visits, hasn’t finished outside of the top four in nine years and has never finished worse than in a tie for 11th.

Since his very first round as a professional here, in 1997, in which he shot an even-par 72, Woods hasn’t failed to break par.

But it was clear from the outset that Thursday was going to be a long afternoon in the heartland.

Woods dissected the fairway on the straightforward opening par 5, blocked a fairway wood but was pin high in the rough with plenty of green to work with. If he dropped a dozen balls from that spot and played left-handed, he’d make birdie more often than not.

But he stubbed his chip. Luckily, Woods hit it just fat enough to at least move the ball in the general direction of the back left pin position and had a 15-foot curler for birdie.

He then missed, establishing the theme for the day.

On the second, he unleashed a 283-yard 3-wood, again in the short grass, fired an iron to about 10 feet then promptly three-putted. He muttered (not so) sweet nothings to himself under his breath as he left the green.

On the next, a 187-yard par 3, Woods found the fat of the green and two-putted from 40 feet. A moral victory of sorts.

And so it went. A day of indifferent iron play and woeful chipping and putting.

“I drove it on a string most of the day,” he said, “I didn’t hit my irons very good and … didn’t make anything.”

An honest assessment and an interesting one given the fact that there is so much fuss made about Woods’ tee shots. He was crooked a handful of times at Turnberry — and it cost him dearly — but overall he’s been a vastly improved driver of the ball since The Players.

The iron play, however, hasn’t been sharp and there’s no doubt that the short game isn’t where it needs to be, either.

Although Woods teed off in the afternoon, when the poa annua greens at Warwick Hills can get a little bumpy, there was no blaming the putting surfaces for his woes.

They worked well enough for tournament leader Steve Lowery, who shot a 9-under-par 63, needing only 24 putts; interestingly, eight fewer than Woods.

At the British Open after the first round, Woods trailed a 59-year-old in Tom Watson by six; in Grand Blanc he’s eight behind a 48-year-old.

I’m not sure what that means, but it can’t be good.

I asked Woods whether he had any forewarning that this was coming.

“No,” he said, “Putted good yesterday, putted good today starting out warming up. And got on the greens today and it was terrible.”

Woods does have a second-round 61 here to draw good memories from, but while he knows he needs to go low, he also is astute enough to understand that he’s not getting back all that lost ground in one round.

“It’s a process,” he said, “I’m not going to get it back in one day because those guys are going to continue to go low. So I’ve got to get it back in three days and hopefully I can do that.”

He bristled somewhat when he was asked about making the cut, as if that would ever be a goal for Tiger Woods at the Buick Open.

“I’ve got to play well to get myself into contention,” he corrected.

“I’m going to have to take advantage of the holes you’re supposed to take advantage of, the par 5s, couple short par 4s, handle those, then sprinkle a few more (birdies) here and there and come up with the number I need to come up with.”

And, be sure, that number’s not another 71.