By the time Tiger Woods made the turn Thursday, the sun had come out at Harding Park and the pandemic gaiter that hung around his neck on his front nine was now in the bag.
A par save on the previous hole had Woods feeling good about his new putter, and his back was feeling good, too. Better yet, he wasn’t spending a lot of time hacking shots out of the deep, wet rough.
Yes, it was quiet, way quieter than any of the 78 previous major championships Woods had ever played in. But it turns out the greatest player of his time can play without crowds too.
And with Woods in contention after an opening round 68, the strangest PGA Championship ever suddenly doesn’t seem so strange after all.
Not to the fans cheering Woods on at home. More importantly, perhaps, not to Woods himself.
“It’s just different,’’ Woods said. “That’s probably the only way to say it; this is what we’re going to have to get used to in the near future and probably for a while.’’
On what looked like a fine San Francisco summer day, Woods put together the kind of opening round that would normally have thousands shouting his name as he moved from tee to green. He made five birdies against three bogeys and was never in danger of making a number that might shoot him out of the tournament before it hardly even began.
He beat the other two guys in his threesome, not a bad accomplishment considering one is a former No. 1 player in the world and the other is the current No. 1. The only surprise for Woods when his day was done was the number of players off early who had gone even lower.
Still, Woods was just three shots off the early pace as he resumed his chase – delayed by a pandemic – for his first win since his historic Masters victory last year. He’s looking – and feeling – comfortable in an area where he has played some of his best golf.
The record he wants most – 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus – is still in play, at least for another day.
“I felt like I kept the round going most of the day,’’ Woods said. “I let a couple go here and there but, for the better part of the day, it was a very solid round.’’
Just what Woods expected in only his second competitive tournament since the pandemic began is hard to say. He talked about playing decently at the Memorial last month and practicing well at home in Florida, but it’s the majors that ultimately test just where his game is.
Pretty good, it seems, even if his 2-under score came in conditions that weren’t quite as treacherous as they will be as the week goes on.
“It was there for the taking today,’’ said playing partner Rory McIlroy, who shot even par.
If it’s at all possible, Woods came into the PGA a little bit under the radar. Oddsmakers had faded his chances, and there were other compelling story lines with new No. 1 Justin Thomas, huge hitting Bryson DeChambeau and, of course, Brooks Koepka going for a third straight Wanamaker trophy.
But Woods can still win majors, as he showed at the Masters by breaking an 11-year drought in golf’s biggest tournaments. That brought him to 15 major titles, and seemed to rekindle the fire to chase the record held by Nicklaus and establish himself as arguably the greatest golfer of all time.
At the age of 44 , though, he’s running out of time, especially with a fused back that prompted him to go to a slightly longer putter this week. Older players have had success – and plenty of it – but history shows that winning majors gets tougher the older a golfer gets.
Only six players older than Woods have won majors, and none more than one after getting to that age. Woods needs three to catch Nicklaus and, unlike during his prime when he was winning them by the handful, he’s competing now against players who are younger, stronger and don’t seem to suffer a lot of nerves.
Still, it was the kind of day that had to give Woods hope that his is not an impossible goal. And his 68 was a better opening round score than he posted in eight of his 15 major wins.
That Woods wasn’t looking too far into the future after signing his scorecard was predictable. He understands more than anyone that patience is the key on tough golf courses in difficult conditions and this PGA will demand just that before it is over.
But the start was about as good as Woods could hope for. He drove the ball well, managed his game well, and made putts when he needed them most.
And if Woods wasn’t exactly celebrating, a lot of his fans watching at home surely were.
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