From all appearances, Tiger Woods had much more trouble taking the ball out of the hole than getting it in. He grimaced, winced and bent over gingerly because of a sore back. He nonetheless played well enough to put himself right in the mix for the weekend, when the heavy lifting starts for contenders at the Barclays.
Woods finished at 5 under par for two rounds, three behind co-leaders Sergio Garcia (3-under 68 Friday) and Nick Watney (69). Woods also shot 69, which was a good score at Bethpage Black as the greens became firmer than tour pros ever saw it in two U.S. Opens here. If only Woods had a mattress to match.
Although tied for seventh, Woods remained the focal point for the voluble fans at Bethpage. Some of them implored his caddie to, "Give Tiger some Advil," and shouted toward the golfer, "C'mon Tiger, shake it off," or "Hey Tiger, walk it off." The latter occurred after he let go of his driver with one hand and made a pained expression following his tee shot on No. 10. Afterward, he said it was his lower back, which was stiff when he woke up and got worse as he warmed up and played with Rory McIlroy (even par for the tournament) and Zach Johnson (1 over).
"Must have slept funny on it," Woods said. "Soft beds at the hotel." He added that he was headed to the fitness trailer rather than the driving range and that he was preparing to make other accommodations Friday night. "I'm probably going to sleep on the floor. I do that in Europe all the time, so this is nothing new," he said.
It also is not new for him to have some malady. Woods has had his share of injuries -- comparing Friday with his 2008 U.S. Open win with a broken leg, he said: "There's a difference between being in pain and being injured. This is just a little bit of pain."
People in the golf community have pointed out that he is not the type to keep his ailments to himself. In fact, he was demonstrative Friday, such as when he stumbled walking downhill into a fairway bunker on No. 13.
Still, his swing looked fine and the results were strong. He bounced back from a bogey-bogey start, making birdies on three of his next five holes. "That's all I've got. I can't hit any harder than that," he said. "It didn't feel very good, but I got it around. Just because the swing didn't feel very good doesn't mean I can't make every putt."
Putting was not easy for anyone on the Black, which finally showed its true form, especially in the afternoon. "The greens are getting really dry fast," said Bob Estes, who played in the morning and shot 67. "We're putting on dirt basically in places. They're just really, really quick."
Watney looks forward to similar conditions on a dry weekend. "When they're fast like this, good golf is rewarded and so-so shots are penalized," he said. "On this golf course, when it gets firm and fast like it was this afternoon, 1 or 2 under par is a great score."
Even par is not so bad, especially for 41-year-old PGA Tour rookie Gary Christian of England, perhaps the most surprising story of this FedEx Cup playoff opener. His 71 left him at 5 under and a Saturday pairing with Woods. Christian is staying in the Massapequa home of Dr. Jeff Poplarski, a chiropractor who is a safe bet to ensure the golfer's back will be just fine.