Tiger Woods Returns To US Open, Shoots Inconsistent Opening-Round 74

PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) — Tiger Woods started off the U.S. Open with a birdie on Thursday, putting him into the red and atop the leaderboard, and turning back the clock 25 years to when a phenom still on the rise first played the national championship at Pinehurst No. 2.

The next 17 holes contrasted the player he once was with the player he is now.

Woods drove the ball exceptionally well, threading narrow fairways flanked on each side by native grasses, and he made a couple of long putts to save pars. But he also hit far too many wayward iron shots on a course that demands accuracy, and his deft touch around the greens abandoned him more than once on the way to a 4-over 74 in the opening round.

It was his 12th consecutive round without breaking par in a major, one derailed by five bogeys in a seven-hole stretch.

“I was somewhat conservative in some of my end points. Then again, I didn’t hit the ball very well either,” explained Woods, who found 12 of 14 fairways in regulation but hit just half the greens. “It’s not where I wanted to be on a lot of holes.”

To be fair, the famed Donald Ross layout can at times be borderline unfair.

Woods hit several shots that would have produced good birdie chances most anywhere else, but instead they rolled off the wildly contoured greens and came to rest in collection areas. That was the case at the par-3 ninth, his final hole of the day, when his approach appeared to be so safely aboard that he plucked his tee and began heading toward the green.

That’s when a groan began rising from the crowd. Woods looked up to see his ball starting to trickle, pick up speed, and come to rest 30 yards down the fairway. His birdie chance had become a testy pitch-and-putt par save to finish the round.

“It’s hard to get the ball close,” Woods said. “In most golf courses you play, you hit shots into where it’s feeding off of slopes into flags, where it’s collecting. Here, everything is repelling. It’s just hard to get the ball on top of the shelves.

“You know if you miss it short side, it’s an auto bogey, or higher.”

Woods at least avoided the big numbers Thursday, and while his round easily could have been even par or better, it at least kept the three-time U.S. Open champ in the mix to make the cut. That alone was an improvement over his last time out in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, where two triple bogeys during a second-round 77 kept him from playing the weekend.

More good news: The battered body that has so often betrayed Woods in recent years seemed to be up to the task.

Woods, who missed the last U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 2014 while recovering from the first of four back surgeries, rarely grimaced on his morning march. The relatively flat layout, at least compared to places like Augusta National, helped his cause, as did the weather, which was hot and humid and kept those aching joints from locking up.

He also benefited from an early tee time, giving him almost 24 hours exactly to recover for Friday’s round.

“I’m hoping I don’t get too tight in the car ride back. I can get tight in air conditioning,” said Woods, who in fact went straight to the driving range after his round, and began working on those inconsistent irons.

He should have had a suspicion they might be a problem.

“I was pretty one-dimensional early in the week, which is interesting. I was drawing the ball a lot. Now I’m cutting the ball a lot,” Woods said, before flashing a wry smile. “Welcome to golf.”

Welcome to inconsistency. And that may be the product of infrequency.

Woods had not played a U.S. Open round since Winged Foot in 2020, thanks mostly to all those injuries — five back surgeries, four knee surgeries and the procedure to piece together a shattered right leg and ankle from his 2021 car crash.

“I’m physically getting better as the year has gone on. I just haven’t been able to play as much because I just don’t want to hurt myself pre, then I won’t be able to play in the major championships,” Woods said. “It’s pick your poison, right? Play a lot with the potential of not playing, or not playing and fight being not as sharp.”

Woods admitted he hopes his body will allow him to begin playing more often.

Playing this weekend would be a good start.