No one really knew what to expect from Tiger Woods on Thursday at testy Riviera, a place that has proven a real challenge for him, even in his prime.
Perhaps not even Tiger himself knew what to expect as he warmed up for his first competitive round since the 2022 Open Championship.
“There’s nothing like game-time,” Woods would say after he finished his first day’s work and what a day it turned out to be. There was so much uncertainty. Tiger admitted to those first tee nerves and he knew there would be adjustments all day. “Joey (caddie LaCava) hasn’t seen me hit a golf ball in a while — but we adjusted,” Tiger explained.
What transpired was a jam-packed crowd — 10 deep all day. They were vocal and hopeful, wanting one of those old Tiger moments. Tiger said he was thrilled with his group as he made his return surrounded by Rory McIlroy and good pal Justin Thomas. “I had this unbelievable pairing,” was how Tiger described this super-group.
And they had a super-group crowd.
Things started well enough for Woods with a birdie at the first hole, the easiest on the course. He needed a great pitch shot from well short of the green to four-feet to get himself going.
But it was a day of ups and downs for Woods — “Ebbs and flows,” was how Tiger described his day. “I hit some good shots — a little mis-hap at 10.”
That 10th hole at Riviera is just a few strides over 300 yards but the par four has often been called “the world’s shortest par five.” And Tiger was fortunate to make five. His tee shot found the big bunker that is about 30 or so yards short of the green. He flubbed his second then his third went over the green, into the back bunker. His fourth shot left him a very, very nervous eight-footer for bogey. He had made the turn in one-under par but double-bogey was staring him in the face.
Woods didn’t flinch. He holed that bogey putt. But another bogey at 12 had him heading in the wrong direction. “I was chastising myself coming off 12,” Woods said afterward. “I was trying to calm myself down — figure out what the hell I’m doing out here,” he said in a moment of honesty.
Tiger settled in after that. Three straight pars righted the ship. At the 16th, he carved a beautiful short iron into the par three that left him just five feet for birdie. Back to even par.
At the 17th, he hit a very poor pitch from the light rough over the green. He pounded a drive and his second landed on the green and finished just over. But with 24 feet for birdie, it didn’t look promising. Woods buried the putt, the crowd went nuts and Tiger gave his first fist pump of 2023. Back-to-back birdies!
At the famous 18th, he cut a perfect drive into the slope, it released and he ended up two yards past Rory’s bomb. Distance off the tee was no problem for Tiger, whose ball speeds reached the elite 180-mile-per-hour mark at times. His final approach was a perfect nine-iron that settled just inside eight feet. Rory was even better, just five feet away.
From the fringe, Thomas ran in his birdie effort from 28 feet.
Tiger was bearing down, looking for the three-birdie finish. “I didn’t want to be the idiot host to miss that one in front of everybody,” Woods said with a huge smile on his face. “The pressure was then on Rory.” McIlroy responded and made it three birdies for the group at 18.
“Rory beat us all day,” Woods said after signing for an amazing, two-under par 69. McIlroy’s clean card translated to a four-under par 67. J.T. finished with 68. A good start for this high-profile three-some.
Tiger tipped his cap to the crowd as he walked off the final green, and flashed that famous smile. “I probably should have appreciated the fans more than I did today,” Woods explained. But he got in that old Tiger-grind-mode where he likes to dwell in his own world. He said he really appreciated that crowd support.
Now comes the tough part — the quick turnaround for the early morning Friday tee time. “It’s sore,” Tiger said of his troublesome right ankle. He said he’d be icing it in the evening, getting treatments, more ice, tough night ahead.
On day one, he hit 6 of 14 fairways, 12 of 18 greens and was pretty good with the putter — using it only 27 times.
His name is up there in red numbers. He hasn’t shot under par anywhere since the second round of the 2022 PGA Championship.
He’ll battle the expected cold weather early Friday morning — 45 degrees or so.
No one knew what to expect but what everyone in that crowd got on Thursday was something special. That birdie-birdie-birdie finish in particular.