Woods Turns a 30 on Back

From Associated Press

Tiger Woods plunked two irons into the water and a tee shot into the trees on an erratic front nine that left fans shaking their heads in disbelief. The back nine had his fellow pros doing the same thing for different reasons.

Woods came back from a watery start with a spectacular exhibition of golf on the final eight holes Thursday, making two eagles and a pair of birdies to get within two shots of Scott Verplank and Chris Smith at the Memorial.

The fat 38 Woods shot on the front side seemed a distant memory by the time he tapped in on the 18th hole for a back nine of 30 and a four-under-par 68. Verplank and Smith had the lead with 66s, but Woods was an imposing figure on the leaderboard.

"The guy is remarkable. How could you say anything else?" Verplank said. "Nobody has played like he's played."

On a day when the wind swirled and the greens were speedy, Woods looked for a while like he might have trouble even shooting par.

Just when it seemed like he would plod his way in, though, Woods exploded. He eagled the 11th and 15th holes and by the time he made a birdie putt with a sheepish grin on No. 17, he had played seven holes in six under.

"He's so aggressive and so good he can stiff it on every single hole," said Sergio Garcia, who shot a 68 of his own. "That shows how strong mentally he is. He makes a double and it doesn't get to him and he's able to bounce back."

Trying to win the same tournament three years in a row, Woods was in a cluster of 11 players two shots off the lead at 68. Jeff Sluman and Stuart Appleby each shot 67.

"I felt if I could somehow hang around and get to even par I'd be in great shape," Woods said. "It was definitely a bonus to end up in the 60s with the way I started off."

Smith, a local favorite playing in his first Memorial, was in the first group off the tee and promptly served notice that this would not be a day when the Muirfield Village Golf Club played at its hardest.

Fully a third of the 105-player field managed to break par because the greens had been softened by earlier rains, allowing players to fire at the pins.

Tournament host Jack Nicklaus wasn't among them, shooting a 75 that still drew a standing ovation from the fans surrounding the 18th green.

Woods was unfazed about his start, which could have been much worse had he not been able to get up and down from just off the third green and then make a saving par on the par-five fifth hole.

By that time, Woods was just trying to grind it out and somehow find a way to get it back to par so he wouldn't shoot himself out of the tournament in the first round. He did that--and more.

"With two balls in the water in five holes you could easily pack it in and get frustrated," Woods said. "I don't play that way."

Not on the back nine he didn't. After making the turn at two over and parring the 10th hole, Woods hit a three-iron second shot into the par-five 11th and made a 20-footer for eagle. He followed it with a pitching wedge to 18 feet and another birdie putt on the par-three 12th to get under par for the first time.

Woods wasn't done. He hit a five-iron that rode the wind to within four feet on the par-five 15th and made that putt for a second eagle, then added a final birdie with a 25-footer that slammed into the cup on 17.

"It wasn't anything special. Just a lot of solid shots on the back nine," Woods said.

Woods' back-nine charge overshadowed the 66 shot by a nervous Smith, who played at nearby Ohio State and used to hang around the Memorial each year.

Smith has bounced back and forth between the PGA Tour and the Buy.com Tour. Before grabbing the first-round lead, he was best known for a tour-best 427-yard drive in the 1999 Honda Classic and losing a skins game to a clown.

"For me this is almost a major," Smith said. "I was looking so forward to playing the tournament some day and to be able to do it this year is really neat. It's like teeing off in the U.S. Open."

As good as Woods was on the back nine, Verplank said the tournament was not over.

"I don't think there is one guy out here," Verplank said, "that would concede to him or not want to beat him."

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