PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIFORNIA | The arc of 31 years can’t be fully captured in two moments. But the essence of Tiger Woods’ golf life has come into focus again here at Riviera Country Club where it felt like it began all those years ago and where it has begun yet again this week.
It was 1992 when Woods, a skinny 16-year-old amateur from nearby Cypress wearing a hat too big for his head and staring into a future too big to imagine, played his first PGA Tour event. Wearing pleated pants that billowed in the breeze and a red, white and gray shirt, Woods birdied his first hole and the rest, as the saying goes, is, well, you know.
When Woods arrived at Riviera’s first tee near the stroke of noon Thursday, he limped slightly and, even with Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas beside him, owned the tiny tee box that sits perched on a hillside and seems barely large enough to hold a dining room table.
One week shy of the two-year anniversary of his horrifying auto accident not far from here and more than two years since his last start in a regular PGA Tour event, Woods appeared as a competitor and the tournament host this week, adding a feeling both aspirational and important.
Just over three decades ago, the future seemed limitless. Now there are more yesterdays than tomorrows for Woods the competitor. That makes the moments when he does play something to be cherished because of what he’s been through to get here.
He’s still Tiger, the way he crouches behind a putt, left hand laid across his left thigh while he studies the line. But he’s a 47-year-old man with a bad right leg and ankle that’s worse. For all of his physical challenges, Woods still believes in his possibilities, which is why he’s playing, not watching.
“There will come a point in time where I can’t do this anymore, but right now I feel like I still can, given the right golf course,” Woods said.
When he hooked his tee shot into the left rough on the edge of a steep hillside at the par-4 fifth hole Thursday, he studied the awkward stance that he had given himself. Then, while his playing competitors were considering their second shots, he slammed his club into the ground and muttered, “Stupid!” to himself.
“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.” – Tiger Woods
Woods’ second shot ran into the front of a greenside bunker, leaving him a long bunker shot that had double bogey stenciled on it. But he walked away with a par that not many others would have made.
It was the kind of thing Woods has done so often that we took it for granted until multiple back, leg and ankle surgeries removed that expectation.
Woods spent his first official round since he crossed the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews last July playing around the edges until the end, when he closed with three straight birdies, calling down the echoes again.
The little smile on the 18th green, when he had hammered home his closing birdie, was a hint of what the moment meant. It was one of the few times Woods left his personal bubble, ignoring the large gallery that surrounded his group for 18 holes.
“I didn’t really look up as much. I probably should have, but I didn’t,” Woods said. “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.”
At times, it looked that way. Woods made a sloppy bogey at the devilish 10th hole, but he’s not alone there. Even as the temperature dropped late in the afternoon, Woods caught what he had been chasing at just the right moment.
A beautiful tee shot to 5 feet at the gorgeous par-3 16th; a 23-foot curling birdie putt at the 598-yard, par-5 17th after hitting his second shot over the green; and then, closing with a 7-foot birdie putt in the amphitheater setting of the 18th green, where Thomas holed out from just off the green for birdie and McIlroy made his own closing 3.
“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,” said Woods, who signed for a 2-under 69 and trails co-leaders Max Homa and Keith Mitchell by five strokes.
There isn’t much time for Woods to dwell on what happened in the first round because he’s due back at Riviera for a 7:24 a.m. PST tee time, when the temperature will be in the 40s and the fatigue from a long Thursday likely will bleed into an early Friday.
That’s a tough double team from someone fighting injury and age.
That’s where being Tiger Woods kicks in again. It’s not fair to assume he can do Friday what he did on Thursday, but maybe it’s not fair to him to think otherwise. A little rest, a little food, a lot of ice, and Woods will try to do it all again.
There is no turning back time, especially not 31 years, but for a while on Thursday afternoon, Tiger finished as if he were young again.
Top: All eyes, cameras and even clocks are on Tiger Woods as he tees off on No. 10 at Riviera. Photo: Michael Owens, Getty Images
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