Tiger Woods wasn’t at his best.
In Thursday’s first round of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, played at Firestone Country Club where Woods has won a record eight times, he hit just one fairway in regulation over his last 10 holes, missed a couple short birdie putts and had a couple of encounters with trees.
And he shot 4-under-par 66.
In so many ways, this was vintage Tiger — often in trouble but rarely in danger, grinding out a score with efficient scrambling, keeping his head in the round while his shots were going astray. It didn’t look pretty at times, but that score he signed for was certainly appealing.
“I felt like today I didn’t quite hit it as well as I wanted to, but I fought out a score, which was good,” said Woods, who stood four shots behind the pace-setting ways of Ian Poulter. The leaderboard is packed, Kyle Stanley and Rickie Fowler at 63, three players at 64, including Jon Rahm, and a bunch at 65, including Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.
That Woods is in the middle of that pack of contenders after playing the way he did is another sign that he’s getting closer to winning for the first time since 2013. He overcame and improvised when he started playing Army golf — left, right, left, right. As he said, he kept hanging in there and grinding.
Tiger did this back in the day when he was the game’s best player for years, where at times he would hit the ball well off the beaten path yet at the end of the day was standing at 65, 66, 67. The best find a way to post a score and Woods hasn’t really done that since 2013, when he won five times and was the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year.
It’s an off day like Thursday that builds confidence.
“It’s nice to put together rounds where I may not feel the best but I’m able to post a score,” he said. “That’s how you win golf tournaments. You’re not going to have your best all four days and it’s a matter of that bad day being 2-, 3-under par instead of being 2-, 3-over par. And today certainly I wasn’t as sharp as I wanted it to be, but I shot 4-under par.”
It’s not as if Woods was chopped liver all day. He was a fairways-and-greens machine his first eight holes and made the turn at 3 under. Then he lost control a tad yet added birdies on the two par-3s and kept his card clean until a final-hole bogey.
Day, Tiger’s playing partner, isn’t surprised to see his friend playing so well just a year removed from needing a golf club to balance himself when he walked.
“He’s won 79 times, right?” Day said. “It’s like anything, you lose touch of it but it’s in there somewhere. Once you find the confidence, then he’s not too far away, and he’s not too far away from going on a pretty big tear here.”
McIlroy, who played in the group in front of Woods, is surprised to see him playing so well so soon after spinal fusion surgery.
“I didn’t think that the progress would be this fast,” McIlroy said. “I thought it was going to take a little bit longer, but I guess when you’re sort of born with it, you have a knack for getting yourself in there and giving yourself a chance.
“I guess it never leaves you.”
Woods dug deep in the first round and got away with one. He’d rather not have to grind out a score the rest of the tournament. If he needs to, he’ll dig. But with the leaderboard bunched and stacked with talent, he’ll have to be sharper and ready to go low.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “I’ve got to go get it.”