SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — As Tiger Woods stood in the middle of the first fairway, the last thing on his mind was a 7.
That number was the first thing on his scorecard Thursday in the U.S. Open.
It didn’t get better on his way to another ugly number, a first-round 78.
“I just didn’t get off to a good start,” Woods said. “I drove good most of the day, just didn’t do much from there. I just didn’t putt well.”
It wasn’t his worst opener in this tournament. Woods shot an 80 at Chambers Bay three years ago, his most recent U.S. Open before back surgeries sidelined him.
Woods rallied by playing the rest of the front nine at 1-under par. After that, his putting fluctuated from spotty to just plain bad, including four putts on the 13th.
“It was not very good,” he said of unlucky No. 13. “I was worried about running the (first) putt by, it would be downhill (coming back). I blocked the next one, (and) blocked the next one. It was not very good.”
Nope, it wasn’t. Shinnecock Hills pushed him around the way it did so many other top names and supposed contenders. A 15th major championship and first in 10 years appears beyond improbable for the greatest golfer of his generation.
Woods was nine strokes out of the lead, in the company of Phil Mickelson (7-over-80), Jordan Spieth (8 over), Jason Day (9 over) and Rory McIlroy (10 over).
“I think he played better than he scored,” said playing partner Dustin Johnson, who finished the day in a four-way tie for the lead at 1 under. “Obviously he got off to a rough start, but I felt like he hung in there pretty good.”
With the fairways and greens lined a half-dozen deep in spots for the marquee threesome of Johnson, Woods and Justin Thomas, there never was a shortage of encouraging shouts of “Tiger!” There were audible groans, though, on the opening hole with each of his subsequent shots.
Woods airmailed the green on his approach and it went down a steep hill into light rough. His pitch got onto the green, but not nearly far enough to stay there, and rolled back down the hill a few steps to the left of where Woods had been.
Showing no signs of frustration, he switched to a putter for his fourth shot, but that didn’t come close to remaining on the putting surface, either.
A spectator said “guaranteed this one isn’t short” as Woods hit shot No. 5. It wasn’t, but he left himself with about 10 feet for 6, and his putt brushed the hole.
When Woods went over the par-3 second green with his tee shot, a long, unproductive day seemed imminent. He putted again, getting to 6 feet, but pushed the putt.
Two holes and 4 over on one of the world’s most difficult courses in as tough a tournament to win as any.
Then Woods steadied. He never looked like a three-time U.S. Open winner — most recently in 2008 — but he played the rest of the front side in 1 under.
After Woods set the putter down behind his ball on the 10th green, he backed away when the ball moved. Under new rules, it’s no longer a penalty, but he called over a rules official to make sure. Then he replaced the ball and made the putt for par.
Then it got really ugly, and the frustration began to show with blown putt after blown putt.
He bogeyed the difficult par-3 11th after hitting into the bunker and leaving his next shot well short of the pin. The four-putt was next, on the 13th. Another double bogey on the next hole saw Woods walking slowly off the green, seemingly beaten by Shinnecock’s harsh greens and his failing putter.
“We thought there were probably seven to nine birdie-able holes out there, but that changed dramatically with the wind blowing and where they put these pins,” Woods said. “It was pretty evident nobody was making birdies and there were plenty of bogeys.
“My game plan was not to make any ‘others,’” he added of anything above a bogey. “I made three of them.”
Despite the poor putting and the high opening number, Woods expressed optimism that he’s still in contention. Of course, he’ll need a total turnaround from Thursday’s outing.
“Just shoot something in the 60s tomorrow and I will be fine,” he said. “I think today was the toughest day we will have all week.”
He’d better hope so.
Barry Wilner, The Associated Press