DUBLIN, OHIO | The early wave of players were already heading to their lunches and famous Muirfield Village milkshakes early Thursday afternoon when the Memorial Tournament fully began.
On the 473-yard, par-4 first hole, the same place where big bang artist Bryson DeChambeau had launched a 423-yard tee shot earlier in the wind-rustled day, Tiger Woods played his first truly competitive hole in nearly five months.
Though the tournament was closed to spectators, Woods – grouped with Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka – drew a crowd anyway. There were 19 golf carts, seven cameramen, three photographers, a handful of golf writers and a few well-positioned residents peering through their wrought-iron fences as Woods, dressed in gray pants and an aquamarine shirt, went about his business.
A careful tee shot into the first fairway, a 146-yard approach shot to 10 feet left of the hole and a beautiful curling putt for an opening birdie. There was no applause but there was none needed.
Walking up a hill toward the second tee, a man in his backyard nearby shouted, “Nice birdie, Tiger.”
Woods looked toward the man, smiled and said, “Thank you.”
“I still felt the same eagerness, edginess, nerviness starting out, and it was good. It was a good feel. I haven’t felt this in a while.” –Tiger Woods
The last remaining piece of the PGA Tour’s pandemic-forced restart was back. It will be nice when spectators return (perhaps when the leaves begin to change colors) but having Woods back reignited speculation about when he might wrench himself free of Sam Snead and have the PGA Tour’s career victory record to himself while adding a jolt of juice only he can provide.
When Woods birdied the third hole, nearly pulling a wedge shot back into the hole, he was 2 under through three, already four clear of Koepka, and, well, that was as good as it would get Thursday.
This isn’t the Workday Charity Open, which was played at a gentler version of Muirfield Village last week. This was a true work day. With ankle-deep rough, a feisty breeze that turned the firm greens firmer and a group of spicy pin positions, Round 1 of the Memorial looked like golf as it can be, not as it has been since the restart when par felt like a concept rather than a reality.
“I sort of was thinking it’s sort of like the Grand Slams in tennis. They’re there for a long time, right,” McIlroy said.
“It’s the two weeks of play, but they’re usually there before that, so they’re there for almost three weeks, so that’s sort of probably what it feels like. Especially like Wimbledon, the courts deteriorate, and they get firmer and they get crustier, so it’s sort of a little bit like that.”
Neither McIlroy nor Woods played last week but both said they watched how Muirfield Village played, with Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas tying at 19-under par. Thursday was something different.
Pausing on the par-5 11th hole while waiting on his playing partners, Wood struck up a conversation with an acquaintance who said, “It’s playing tough, huh?”
“Ya think?” Woods said.
Nearby, a group of youngsters chanted his name, looking in from a backyard where they had taped a ‘Tiger’s Cub House’ poster to a fence. They earned a wave and a big smile.
“That’s cute,” Woods said.
Though the scoring was nothing special – Woods shot 71, McIlroy had 70 and Koepka had 72 – their day together was a five-hour workshop devoted to getting a hard afternoon’s work done.
Tony Finau, Ryan Palmer and others did it better Thursday, but only eight players broke 70 and no one expects Muirfield Village to get easier going forward. They’re digging up the greens Monday morning so if the rain stays away, they could get extra crispy by the weekend.
Koepka, who hadn’t planned to play this event but added it when he considered the ramifications of being 156th in FedEx Cup points with events running out, hit tee shots in the water at the second and third holes and found no man’s land off the tee at the 11th. Still, as rounds of 72 go, Koepka earned this one.
McIlroy seemed to glide along, not making much happen until he made a remarkable par save at the par-3 12th. With the hole cut on the front left of the slender green (which intentionally bears a resemblance to the par-3 12th at Augusta National), McIlroy double-crossed himself off the tee, missing the green by nearly 20 yards.
Playing from deep rough over a mogul with water lurking beyond the flag, McIlroy played a flop shot to 20 feet then holed the putt for a 3 that felt better than most pars.
A top-10 par save this year? “I’d say so,” McIlroy said.
A few minutes later, McIlroy birdied the 13th and he had created something out of seemingly nothing.
Woods finished his first competitive round since February the way he started it – making a 15-footer for birdie.
“I still felt the same eagerness, edginess, nerviness starting out, and it was good. It was a good feel. I haven’t felt this in a while,” Woods said when he was done.
He, McIlroy and Koepka had just more than 12 hours before returning to do it all again.
A hard day’s night awaiting them.
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