Talk about Bethpage Blech.
He shot a two-over-par 72 in the first round at Bethpage Black on Thursday, suddenly finding himself nine shots behind the relentless Brooks Koepka, who glided in with a course-record 63 that featured no bogeys and seven birdies. Woods and Koepka played in a threesome with Francesco Molinari, last year’s British Open winner, and their group started on No. 10.
Woods revealed afterward that he felt sick the day before, and that’s why he didn’t show up for his final practice round.
“I decided to stay home and rest,” he said.
Now it’s the PGA Tour brass that feels queasy, considering that as Tiger goes, so goes the popularity of the sport.
If Woods was a little rusty, that’s understandable. This is his first tournament since Augusta, and he’s had to carefully moderate how much golf his 43-year-old body can handle, especially after four back surgeries.
As he said earlier in the week, “There’s more days I feel older than my age than I do younger than my age.”
Meanwhile, Koepka is Drago to Tiger’s Rocky. He’s 29, built like an NFL safety and is fresh off the AT&T Byron Nelson, where he finished fourth at 20 under. He has won the last two U.S. Opens and is the defending PGA champion. What’s more, he finished second to Woods at Augusta by a stroke.
Personality-wise, Koepka is as flat as a ball marker. He prides himself in never letting his face show what he might be feeling inside, not exactly an emotional pitchman for the PGA Tour. He might have celebrated Thursday after ending his round with a birdie putt that measured 33 feet 7 inches. Instead, he picked apart his performance — one that tied the record for second-lowest round in a major.
“I didn't take care of the par fives, didn’t birdie any of the par fives,” said Koepka, who also shot a 63 in the second round of the PGA last year at Bellerive. “That was disappointing because I felt like you know those are holes you should be able to birdie.”
Woods, meanwhile, was as up and down as the undulating course. He double-bogeyed his first hole, and did so again on his eighth. In both cases, he got in trouble on his tee shot and missed a putt inside of 10 feet.
But he got hot after making the turn to the first nine holes of the course. He drained a 14½-foot putt for a birdie on No. 1, hit an approach to within three feet on No. 2 that resulted in another birdie, and eagled the par-five fourth by hitting a 220-yard second shot to within 31 feet before making that putt.
The massive gallery roared its approval. The skies were pristine — a welcome change after a cold, wet winter — the course was drying, and the possibilities were boundless. It was Augusta all over again.
That didn’t last long. Over the next four holes, if his wheels didn’t entirely come off, Woods certainly lost a few lug nuts.
The meltdown unfolded thusly:
No. 5: Woods showed a flicker of frustration when he hit his approach 32 feet past the hole. An irritation, but nothing serious. He had a slippery downhill putt that slid four feet past the cup. When he rimmed out the short comebacker, he was back to even par.
No. 6: Looking to play it safe, he hit an iron off the tee at the 392-yard, par-four hole and wound up in the sand to the left of the fairway. He recovered with an approach to 47 feet, two-putting from there for par.
No. 7: He hit a three-wood off the tee, landing safely in the fairway. His approach hit pin high on the left fringe before trickling onto the green, setting up a meaty 55-foot putt that was slightly uphill. Leaving the flagstick in, he came up well short on his putt — 6 feet 7 inches short, to be exact — but a distance that would have been automatic for the old Tiger. But he missed again, this time an inch to the right. The disappointment showed on his face as he tapped in for bogey.
No. 8: Par is a great score on this 223-yard par-three hole, protected by a pond that’s the only water on the course. Woods hit a five-iron almost pin high to the right side. He was just off the green in the second cut, fairly close to the cup, but had to come out of the grass. He blew a bump-and-run shot past the hole, still trying to figure out the speed of the greens. With almost nine feet left for par, he just missed again. Another bogey.