ST. LOUIS — Tiger Woods salvaged a horrible start to his PGA Championship by going 3-under over the final 16 holes to scratch out an even-par round of 70 on Thursday.
Woods got back to even par on his 17th hole of the day, the par-5 eighth. Woods was able to drain a birdie putt after chipping out of a greenside bunker. It was his third birdie putt of the day and his second on his back nine.
Woods bogeyed his first hole and doubled his second, putting him 3-over after just two holes. As Woods walked to the fairway of the third hole he changed into another dark blue Nike pullover.
“That shirt is not working,” Woods’ caddy remarked to playing partner Justin Thomas as Woods had slipped behind a partition to change.
Woods double-bogeyed No. 11
Thursday was Woods’ first competitive round at Bellerive Country Club and his first-ever competitive round in the city of St. Louis. Until this weekend’s PGA Championship, Woods’ closest association with the course and the area had been a practice round he played at the course on Sept. 11, 2001.
Woods was in town for a golf clinic and played with Mark Calcavecchia on the morning of the attacks. With air travel suspended in the following days, Woods drove home from St. Louis to Florida.
“I drove home on the 13th and 17 hours to get back home to Florida, and it was a very surreal time for myself on that drive and a lot of reflecting,” Woods said Tuesday.
Surreal might be a good word to describe Woods’ first two holes on Thursday. He bogeyed the first hole when he was forced to punch out of the rough following an errant drive. His iron shot off the tee at the par-3 11th hole (Woods started on the back nine) went into the left rough and Woods had what looked to be a relatively straightforward approach shot over a pond and up onto the green.
But Woods didn’t catch his second shot cleanly at all. The ball started its descent way before the green and bounced off the rock wall in front and plopped into the water.
A drop and a missed bogey putt later, Woods was more strokes over par than holes played.
“Grind my way around this place,” Woods said after his round. “Tried to stay as patient as possible. I got off to a terrible start and just tried to hang in there and just kind of eat away at it.”
Woods gets two strokes back on his back nine
Traversing the course was an adventure anywhere near where Woods was playing. At 42 and on a five-year winless streak he’s still the most magnetic golfer on the PGA Tour. Especially for many in attendance who have never seen Woods play in person.
He was grouped with Justin Thomas, the winner of last week’s WGC event at Firestone and the defending PGA Championship winner, and two-time PGA champion Rory McIlroy. With Woods hearing a “Go Tiger” with nearly every step he took and Thomas hearing “Roll Tide” on a seemingly endless loop — after all, Missouri is SEC country now — McIlroy might have been in the unique position of playing the popularity third fiddle.
As Thomas sprinted out with a 3-under front nine, McIlroy settled and settled for pars. He posted nine straight pars before bogeying his 10th hole. He birdied two holes and entered his final hole at 1-under before a wayward drive set up a bogey on the final hole.
Thomas’ front-nine performance briefly put him tied atop the leaderboard with Rickie Fowler. But Thomas struggled on the back nine, dropping two shots and also bogeying the final hole after burying his drive in a bunker.
Woods’ shirt change produced immediate, if not-long lasting, dividends. Woods’ second shot on his third hole — his first with the fresh shirt — was within spitting distance of the pin. He knocked in the putt for birdie and quickly got back to 2-over par.
But he made it clear after the round that he wasn’t changing shirts because of the bad start. His typical routine of putting on a new shirt before his tee time was thwarted, so he started his round with a sweat-soaked shirt.
“Normally I change before the round,” Woods said. “There wasn’t a place to change on the 10th tee. So I waited until we had a little port-a-john there.”
A bogey on No. 7 briefly got him back to 3-over par but consecutive birdies at his ninth and 10th holes (Nos. 18 and 1) gave Woods a lift. He was noticeably more relaxed over the back nine after stringing together two good holes.
“If I didn’t get off to such a bad start I played well enough to put myself under par,” Woods said.
While that statement is true about Thursday, the general theme is also applicable to Woods’ recent performances. He played well enough to have a shot at the British Open in July. But Woods posted consecutive holes of … you guessed it … bogey and double bogey to put himself out of contention at the Open just as soon as he was in it.
At Firestone a week ago, Woods entered the third round at 6-under par. A run of three bogeys in four holes on Saturday took him out of contention and he faded to an even-par finish after a bogey-double bogey sequence late in his round.
Maybe Woods just got his bad streak out of the way on Thursday morning and he’s set to make a charge over the final three rounds. Or maybe we should all get used to this new normal of Tiger Woods. With each passing round like Thursday, the latter scenario becomes more realistic.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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