SAN MARTIN, Calif. — Anyone expecting a new and improved version of Tiger Woods saw much of the same old thing Thursday.
An early birdie to raise hopes. A sudden tumble. And he couldn’t make a putt.
In his first tournament in seven weeks, Woods went 13 holes between his only two birdies at the Frys.com Open and had a 2-over 73 that put him in danger of missing consecutive cuts for the first time in his career.
“That’s probably one of the worst putting rounds I’ve ever had,” Woods said. “I can’t putt the ball any worse than I did today.”
Texas Open winner Brendan Steele opened with a 4-under 67 on a cool day at CordeValle with a few bursts of showers. He was joined in the lead by Briny Baird, Garrett Willis and Matt Bettencourt.
Woods fell out of the top 50 in the world ranking this week for the first time in 15 years, and it showed. The best golf in his group came from UCLA sophomore Patrick Cantlay, the No. 1 amateur in the world, who opened with a 2-under 69.
Woods was tied for 86th, although he was still only one shot out of the top 70 and ties that advance to the weekend. It marked the sixth straight round in which he failed to break par, and another occasion of having to scroll far down the leaderboard to find him.
He had not played since missing the cut at the PGA Championship in August, finishing out of the top 100 for the first time in a major. Woods said the time off at least gave him time to practice, to nail down the major work in his swing change with Sean Foley, and to play 36 holes a day at home in Florida.
Being back on the PGA Tour was different, even if it looked the same.
There was nothing special about his game, although whatever he did right was derailed once he got on the greens. Woods missed three putts inside 6 feet, two of them for birdie. Even toward the end of his round, he froze when he saw a 4-foot par putt on the 16th hole take a 360-degree ride around the edge of the cup before falling.
“The rest of the game was not too bad,” Woods said. “I hit some bad shots, yes. But also, I hit some really good ones. And very pleased at the shots I was hitting most of the day. But I got nothing out of the round on the greens. And whatever momentum I could have gotten by hitting good shots … you know, I just missed putts.”
He missed a 6-foot birdie attempt at the par-5 ninth, but saved par with a 12-footer — the longest putt he made all day — on the next hole. That appeared to give him a lift, for he stuffed his tee shot on the par-3 11th to 4 feet.
The putt didn’t even touch the hole.
And then, Woods made a mess of the par-5 12th. From the left rough, the grass grabbed his club and pulled the shot toward the hazard. Woods never found the ball, had to return to the other side of a creek and lay up short of another hazard in front of the green. He had to work hard to two-putt from 35 feet for double bogey.
The last time Woods missed consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour was in 1994, when he was an 18-year-old amateur. In fact, he missed his first seven cuts as an amateur. On the PGA Tour, he has missed the 36-hole cut only seven times in his career.
“I need to put together a good round tomorrow and gradually piece my way back into the tournament,” Woods said.
The leaders didn’t seem to have many problems, although the cold weather and occasional rain put low scores at a premium.
Steele birdied his last two holes for a 31 on the back nine. Baird has made nearly $12 million on the PGA Tour — the most of anyone without having won a tournament — and at least gave himself hope by playing without a bogey.
The group at 68 included a pair of Australians, Rod Pampling and Matt Jones, both on the bubble for finishing in the top 125 on the money list and keeping their PGA Tour cards. There are two more tournaments after this week.
Money is not an issue for Cantlay — at least not yet. He has done so well this year, from being low amateur at the U.S. Open to his record-setting 60 at the Travelers Championship, that some feel he is ready for the PGA Tour.
He wasn’t all that impressed with a score that was four shots better than Woods.
“He played how he played,” Cantlay said. “I didn’t have any expectations for what he was going to do, or what anybody else was going to do, except for myself.”
Cantlay is not one to easily get flustered, even playing with Woods, and it showed on the opening hole. Stepping up to his tee shot, he let out a gaping yawn, then smashed his drive down the fairway.
For the rest of the day, the UCLA sophomore outplayed the 14-time major champion.
Both rolled off the front of the green at No. 6, where Cantlay rattled in a 35-foot birdie putt, and then Woods came up 5 feet short and had to save par. On the par-5 ninth, Woods put his third shot just inside 6 feet from the cup. Cantlay holed his 10-footer for birdie, and Woods blocked his birdie putt. Cantlay went out in 32, and his lone mistake was a three-putt on the 13th when he m issed a 2-footer.
Woods started beautifully — a tee shot into the fairway, a short iron to 3 feet for birdie. Some three hours passed before his next birdie, however, and the day quickly became a struggle.
Woods hit three bunker shots on No. 2 — two from the one in front of the green — for a bogey. He missed a 3-foot par putt on No. 3 and then hooked a tee shot on the fourth, looking down at his hand to suggest it slipped off the club in the rain.
It was ordinary golf, the brand he has been playing for much of the last two years.
Woods has another month off after CordeValle before the Australian Open and the Presidents Cup. He is under more scrutiny than usual as a captain’s pick by Fred Couples, and a round like this is not going to make the skeptics go away.
“I’m just playing to get competitive and win a golf tournament,” Woods said. “It’s not about validation. It’s about going out there and playing. And right now, I’m six back.”