PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — I wasn’t prepared for what I saw from Tiger Woods on Thursday afternoon at the 2019 U.S. Open. Woods, who went off late in the day and helped close out the afternoon wave as the sun splashed against maybe the prettiest backdrop in all of American golf, hit the ball quite poorly but putted his way to a 1-under 70 in Round 1.
The reason I wasn’t prepared for this is two-fold. Tiger has been one of the best ball-strikers in the world this season (and last), and he’s brought poor Pebble Beach to its knees over the last two U.S. Opens here by hitting more perfect iron shots than anyone else in golf. And yet, on Thursday, he had to superglue that 70 together with his Scotty Cameron and 11 one-putts. Eleven!
Let’s dive into Woods’ first 18 holes and take a look at what’s ahead for Big Cat.
Front nine (1-under 34): It was all pars for Woods on the front except for a four-hole stretch, but boy was that four-hole stretch a strange one. It started at the par-4 4th where Woods made birdie. Then he yanked his tee shot at the par-3 5th, and it bounced off the cart path looking like any old 14-handicap golfer getting a $525 round in at Pebble on a Thursday afternoon. He made double. Birdie-birdie after that got him back to red numbers, and it was (mostly) clean sailing from there.
Back nine (even-par 36): It’s a little bit unfair to simply say that Woods shot an even 36 on the back nine with nine pars without a little bit of context. For example, on the par-5 14th, Woods hit his second shot into the bunker in front of the green. He pitched out over the back of the green, chipped that 30 feet past and (of course) canned that putt for a straightforward 5.
What went well: Tiger probably saved his tournament with his putter on Thursday. He’s been a good but not great putter this season, but he needed every one of the nearly four strokes he gained on the greens on Thursday because …
What went poorly: Inexplicably, Tiger hit it so poorly with his irons on Thursday. He was good off the tee, and he wasn’t spraying shots all over the place from the fairway, but his distance control was terrible at times and he only hit nine greens in regulation. Woods, who ranks inside the top 15 in approach shots this season, ranked outside the top 120 on Thursday. Not good. This is why it’s a minor miracle he escaped with 70.
Shot of the day: Here’s that unreal putt on No. 14.
Where he stands: Woods was just outside the top 25 at the time he finished and five back of playing partner and leader, Justin Rose (-6). In 2000, when he won here, he led by one. In 2010, when he finished T4, Woods trailed by five after firing a 74 in the first round. The encouraging part if you’re a Big Cat fan is that there’s almost no possible way he can hit it this poorly for the remainder of the week, which means a big gallop could be coming in turn two or turn three.
What’s next: Tiger goes again with Rose and Jordan Spieth at 11:24 a.m. ET on Friday. The USGA will likely turn the heat up the rest of the week, and Woods will have to strike it much better all three days if he wants to find himself in a cauldron he’s always found himself in on this course. For the majority of his career, he’s banked scores at this place — three of 310 competitors have defeated him over two U.S. Opens at Pebble — but he’s got a lot of work to do and a lot of swings to straighten out if that theme is going to continue for the 2019 version of this event.