10 sights and sounds from Tiger Woods’ first round back

We learned more about Tiger Woods’ speed, strength, health and mindset on Thursday at the Genesis Invitational.

The post 10 sights and sounds from Tiger Woods’ first round back appeared first on Golf.

We learned more about Tiger Woods’ speed, strength, health and mindset on Thursday at the Genesis Invitational.

The post 10 sights and sounds from Tiger Woods’ first round back appeared first on Golf.

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — By the time Tiger Woods rattled home his birdie putt on Riviera’s 18th, the sun had disappeared behind the hills. The temperature had dropped into the mid-50s. The crowds had thinned, too, leaving only the heartiest (and best-jacketed) to roar on the marquee trio of Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas.

They were rewarded for their perseverance when all three reached the 18th green and rolled in their birdie tries, one after another after the next, sending a charge through the assembled.

For the tournament host, the final putt meant an opening round of two-under 69, good enough for T27. The day was an unconditional success for Woods, who was playing his first stroke-play round since the Open Championship last July.

So what did we learn from watching? In short, there’s plenty to be encouraged by. Here are 10 sights, sounds, stats and thoughts from his return.

1. Woods’ speed is there.

The average driver ball speed on the PGA Tour is 172 mph. On Thursday, Woods hit driver 10 times — and blew past that 172 number every time. He hit at least 177 mph on his last nine drives and peaked at 180 mph on both No. 3 and No. 13.

That’s speedy for anyone on Tour and particularly impressive given Woods is 47 years old and made partly of metal. It’s also crucial to his chances. Obviously Woods needs more than just high ball speed to play good golf. But he needs speed to have a chance. He’s got it.

2. His walking is better — so far.

I talked to Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, after their pro-am round on Wednesday. Woods had looked and felt pretty good, all things considered, but LaCava was taking a wait-and-see approach. Since Woods’ return to golf last year, he has looked relatively good during practice rounds but has felt his body deteriorate throughout the week.

At last year’s Masters, for instance, Woods used his driver like a walking stick during Sunday’s final round. He was so beat up by three rounds at the PGA that he withdrew.

On Thursday, Woods walked with a limp that got slightly worse as the round went on. He was keenly aware of his ankle, taking off his shoe at No. 12 to make an adjustment. But he was still pacing around the green and reading from every angle as he poured in his birdie putt at the par-5 17th.

3. A flighted driver was his shot du jour.

Woods’ tee shot of choice was a low runner that maximized distance along Riviera’s firm fairways. He referred to those tee shots as “cheater flighted ones” and was self-deprecating about his distance, but there were several times — including on the 18th — that he edged past both playing partners.

“I put my driver up a click in loft at the start of the week. I might have to turn it back down again,” McIlroy said. “I don’t like him hitting it by me.”

4. He was thrilled — and surprised — by the crowds.

When Woods made his 24-footer on the 17th green, the roar that went up seemed much louder — and more intense — than the number of people in attendance should have been able to produce. The pin was cut in the back-left section of the green, tucked close to the grandstands, and he grinned as they chanted his name.

“It was a lot louder than I had — I haven’t played in a tournament in a long time,” he said, adding he felt some guilt about not acknowledging the fans more. “I didn’t really look up as much as I probably should have, but I was trying to calm myself down all day, trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing out here because I haven’t played.”

5. He relished the Super Group.

The less he’s out here, the more Woods talks about how much he relishes the camaraderie of being on Tour. That was especially true Thursday, when he was paired with close friends Thomas and McIlroy. The day’s final hole was also its best, by far, given the trio’s birdies.

“I think it’s the group,” Woods said of his post-round grin. “JT hoops one in there and Rory’s been beating us all day. He’s nervous as can be because he didn’t want to be the one to miss on 18.

“I didn’t want to be the idiot host to miss it right in front of everybody after I just went birdie-birdie. These are all things that we all say amongst each other, but obviously people don’t hear it, but caddies hear it, we all hear it.

“It was a great round. The ebb and flow of needling each other, encouraging each other and telling stories. Because I hadn’t been out here so I’ve missed some of the things that have transpired on Tour, which is kind of fun.”

6. The student has become the master.

Perhaps the best back-to-back shots the group mustered all day came at No. 5, where Thomas and Woods had each missed the green in challenging positions. First, Woods hit a 35-yard bunker shot — an awkward distance, even for the pros — that trickled out to six feet. Then Thomas played a clever low runner that scooted along the ground, over a hill and up onto the green, leaving himself a similar putt. There’s no question Woods and Thomas have each strengthened each others’ short games during chipping sessions in South Florida, and Thomas’ array of short-game shots is reminiscent of his golfing hero. Both made well-earned pars.

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7. Woods’ health has been “a moving target.”

Asked if he’s made any adjustments, Woods could only nod. His ankle is “a lot smaller than it has been,” he said. He has felt changes to his leg and his ankle. He’s adjusted his shoes and socks as a result.

“Everything’s a moving target,” he said. “How much I’m on my feet, how much I’m not, how active I am, the muscles that are on or off. It’s a moving target all the time.”

My hope is that he already survived the greatest threat to his health this week: One of his pro-am partners had a lethal case of the shanks. Keep your head on a swivel, gang!

8. His game had no serious holes.

Woods hit it well, gaining strokes on the field off the tee and on his approach shots. The strongest part of his game — thanks in large part to the last three holes — was his putting, where he gained 1.8 shots, 19th in the field. He looked rustiest around the greens, losing a shot to the field and looking just a touch off. But there was nothing about Woods’ game that suggested he wouldn’t be able to play another good competitive round now that he’s logged his first of 2023.

9. He was proud of the way he finished.

Midway through the back nine, it looked as though Woods may be doomed for a mediocre round, something like one- or two-over par, setting up a Friday race to the cut line. His three closing birdies changed that dynamic immediately; now he can enter the second round with his sights set on the top of the leaderboard — Max Homa, at seven under — rather than the cut line.

“Last year you saw it — I didn’t finish off the rounds right,” Woods admitted post-round. “Those are things that I hadn’t done and I hadn’t played a whole lot, so I was chastising myself pretty hard coming off of 12 saying, hey, we’ve got to really get this thing going.

“I didn’t know how we were going to do it after hitting a bad tee shot on 13, but let’s just somehow figure it out and figure out how to piece together something around even par, one-under par. And just happened to get three in a row coming in.”

10. Ice is coming.

McIlroy mentioned that he was headed to the range post-round to hit some drivers.

“I’ll be right behind you,” Woods said, joking.

He looked spent by the end of his media obligations, limping off into the locker room. He admitted that he was a little sore already. Now comes a quick turnaround before his 7:24 a.m. Friday tee time. That means a lot of icing.

“As soon as I get back to the hotel, it’s just icing and treatment and icing and treatment, just hit repeat throughout the whole night,” he said. “Get ready, warmed up tomorrow, get this big sweat going on, big lift in the morning and stay warm and get off to a good start on 10.”

He didn’t mention the word “sleep” in there. But I’m tired just thinking about it.

One good round in the books. Woods hopes there are three more to go.

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