Look, this Get Tiger Woods Back to East Lake campaign just isn’t going to work if:
1) Some of these other golf enthusiasts don’t cooperate and start treating par with a little respect. And,
2) Woods himself doesn’t contribute a little something to the cause.
Woods shot a 71 in Thursday’s first round of the BMW Championship, and that wasn’t even a burp in a wind tunnel. All 1 under got him was farther behind. If you weren’t running in the red, full throttle, from the first tee to the post-round snack mix back at the clubhouse, you were losing ground.
On a day in which there were 35 rounds in the 60s (more than half a 69-player field), when the course record was tied, twice (65, by Justin Thomas and Jason Kokrak), when the field scoring average was 69.27 and when only two players finished over par, Woods needed a far more forceful opening statement than this.
“The whole field seems like it’s under par, and we just didn’t do it today,” Woods said.
Eleventh or better! That is the dissonant battle cry for Woods this week. It was calculated that’s where he needed to finish in this playoff semifinal to join the top 30 in FedEx Cup points at the Tour Championship next week. What a shame if he couldn’t make it back after winning the tournament last year at East Lake and setting off the kind of celebration that usually requires the tearing down of at least one goalpost. And, yet, his 71 left him in a tie for 50th after one round.
When Woods rolled in a 40-foot putt for birdie on No. 3 – it either was going in or headed to neighboring Schaumburg – it looked as if he had his ropes and his crampons and he was ready to climb. He was 2 under through his first three. But that was the highlight. Everything else that followed was a lot of standing still.
There were plenty of missed fairways – he hit only seven of 14, ranking him 60th in the field. He was inconsistent with an iron in his hand – like the wedge from 107 yards that he flew over the green on No. 15. Chipping and putting was ehhh at best (witness the lipped-out 5-footer for bogey on No. 4 and the three-putt bogey from 45 feet on No. 9).
A product, he had to acknowledge, of his inactivity since winning the Masters – this was only his 14th competitive round since April. “I need reps,” he said, “and I just haven’t really put in a lot of reps.”
The only solace Woods could take from Thursday was the knowledge that there are much lower rounds to be had out there, regardless of age or mileage. Perhaps he could still snag one or two of those before this was done.
The oldest guy in the field, 49-year-old Jim Furyk, a guy whose swing looks like it is made of spare parts, shot 66 over a track that is supposed to favor the limber and the long-hitting. The 2010 FedEx Cup champion began this day 48th in points and requires something quite spectacular to make it to East Lake, which he last visited four years ago.
“I don't have much to lose this week to be honest with you,” Furyk said. “Really the only thing is upside. Can you get better? Can you improve and try to get in the top 30 for next week?”
Perhaps Woods might be served by reporting to the practice tee Friday, turning his back to the range and spraying balls into the Medinah Country Club driveway.
Thomas said that upon getting to the range Thursday morning, “I had probably the worst warm-up I've ever had in my life. I couldn't hit the ball. I had no idea what I was doing.” And then he went out and shot a bogey-free 65 that was as carefree as afternoon tea.
The featured threesome included the top three in FedEx Cup points, players, really, with the most to lose this week.
No. 1 Brooks Koepka may be a monster in the majors, but he has yet to show that side of himself in the playoffs. He has no victories and only two top-10s in 16 previous playoff events. That was the Koepka who launched Thursday. After consecutive bogeys on Nos. 10 and 11 he was at 1 over. But then he got mad, and then he got even, and then better than that. Five-under over his next five holes, including an eagle on the par-5 15th, vaulted him to 4 under for the day.
“I just found something in my golf swing, just tried to shorten it up a little bit and make one key swing thought change,” Koepka said. “I felt a little bit more comfortable. I haven't felt comfortable over the ball in a while, so it was nice to feel confident when you're setting up over it.”
No. 2 Patrick Reed, a winner last week, also shot 68. No. 3 Rory McIlroy came in at 69. Just two more voices in the Medinah Under-70 Tabernacle Choir.
The number of players Woods needs to run down in three rounds is daunting. It’s pretty simple what he needs to do to even put East Lake back on his radar. And at this point, just getting back there would be almost as fantastical as what he accomplished there a year ago.
“I’m going to have to make a lot of birdies,” he said. “There are so many guys under par that I’m going to have to shoot some low rounds just to get back in it.”