For Tiger Woods, golf became a game of inches.
Woods eagled the first hole at Riviera on Thursday by sinking a putt that was laser-measured at 24 feet, 8 inches — the two jersey numbers of fallen Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.
Later, he birdied the eighth hole, one marked with a purple-and-gold flag.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Woods said after his two-under-par 69 in the Genesis Invitational left him five shots back of Matt Kuchar. “It’s a nice way to start. I didn’t know about the putt being that long …
“No matter what we do, I think we’re always going to remember Kobe Bryant and what he meant, especially here in SoCal and the entire sports world. Like I said, very ironic that I happened to have those numbers on those holes, and those exact measurements.”
As for his swing, Woods wasn’t so keenly calibrated. He hit six of seven fairways with his drives on the front nine, but only one of seven on the back. His scores reflected that: 31 on the front, with an eagle and two birdies, and 38 on the back, with seven pars and two bogeys.
He said he was trying to “piece together” his swing on the driving range despite a hectic schedule. He’s the tournament host, so his foundation is the primary beneficiary of the event.
“I haven’t had a whole lot of time to practice this week; I’ve been a little bit busy,” he said. “First time I saw the range was [Wednesday], and that was for about 10 minutes, and that was warming up for the pro-am. I really haven’t hit a lot of balls this week.
“Just that, start shaping shots on the range and said, ‘Hey, just keep this thing going on the front nine.’ Well, for all 18 holes. I only did it for the front nine.”
That was plenty entertaining for the predictably robust gallery that followed him on a postcard day, cheering him around a course that has been unusually challenging for him.
He’s looking for his 83rd career PGA Tour victory, which would break his tie with Sam Snead for the most in history. In his 12 starts at Riviera, Woods has yet to win.
Patrick Cantlay, who played at UCLA and is tied for eighth at 68, called Riviera the best course and “best test” on the tour.
“I think they change very little about the golf course, and yet the scores are always relatively high, or the winning score is always around 12- to 16-under par or something. There’s no real rough, and the greens aren’t overly firm, and it’s not crazy long. It’s long, but they don’t have to do much and the golf course always defends itself.”
The three red numbers by Woods unfolded like this:
▶ On No. 1, he striped a three-wood 312 yards down the right side of the fairway, then he hit an iron — appropriately an eight8-iron — 179 yards downwind to set up his long eagle putt.
▶ On No. 5, he hit his tee shot 267 yards down the middle, followed by a 155-yard approach that set up a kick-in birdie putt.
▶No. 8 was a 304-yard drive between the fairway bunkers, and a pinpoint approach from 102 yards that left him another birdie putt of less than three feet.
Because he opened with an afternoon round, Woods plays Friday morning. He’s pleased with that.
“Considering I’m on East Coast time, I kind of like it,” he said. “I’ve been getting up pretty early, so it will be a quick turnaround, get back at it. Hopefully, we’ll have a little bit smoother greens. Hopefully, I can hit it as good as I did on that front nine to give myself a number of looks for the entire 18 holes, not just nine holes.”
His 69 was his best opening round here since 2006, but that’s deceptive because he skipped this tournament from 2007 through ’17.
Still, a 31-38 is only half bad.