It’s a testament to Tiger Woods and the comeback he put together at Augusta last month that he was able to make believers out of those watching at the fourth hole Thursday afternoon.
Forget, for a moment, that his morning started in messy fashion – a double bogey on his first hole of the back nine at Bethpage Black. And never mind that his groupmate, Brooks Koepka, was well on his way to making history, shooting a course record. What Woods did over those 517 yards was nothing short of vintage: A strong drive to the left fairway, 220 yards to the green, and a 31-foot putt that broke left hard, as if magnetized to the hole. That eagle – his first in the PGA Championship since 2001 – made people think that anything was possible
But the reality wasn’t quite as neat: The uneven play that marked his back nine made its strong return on the front nine, as he bogeyed three of his last five holes. He finished the day at a 2-over-par 72.
He will need to make the top 70 to make the cut for Saturday, which means Tiger Woods is going to need another comeback.
“I felt like I was getting back into the round,” Woods said of the eagle, which put him in the red for the first and only time Thursday. “I didn't take advantage of my opportunities…I fought my way back around there, and unfortunately, I just didn't keep it together at the end.”
Woods’ morning was a tough one. He missed the fairway off the tee on the 10th hole, and eventually earned himself a double bogey. Woods added another double bogey on the back nine, and seemed a breath away from irrelevancy before finding his groove through the first four holes on the front nine.
Woods, who practiced on the front nine Monday but skipped his scheduled back-nine practice Wednesday because of an illness, birdied the first and second holes, and made par on the third. His coup was on that fourth hole, which put him 1 under – though he was still four strokes behind Koepka at the time. Also in the group was Francesco Molinari, who finished 2 over.
But his unraveling was almost immediate, with a three-putt for bogey on the fifth hole. He had one more three-putt, and bogeyed holes 7 and 8 as well.
“The golf course is playing tough,” Woods said. “I felt like it's not that hard to make bogeys out here, but it's hard to make birdies. And I thought it was going to be hard to get the ball close to the holes. When I had a few opportunities there with short irons, I played aggressively and was able to get them in there where I had makeable putts, and otherwise 30, 40 feet away and move on.”
The course should dry out more Friday, and Woods noted that the greens played faster as the afternoon went on. Tougher greens all around could be a boon for him, and he’ll tee off at the first hole at 1:49 p.m. Woods actually had a better driving accuracy than Koepka – 71.4 to 64.2 – but shot 66.6 percent of greens in regulation.
“We'll see how it dries out over the next few days,” Woods said. “I don't see them cutting the rough down, so it's just going to place another premium on driving the ball in the fairway to get at some of these flags. . .It puts a premium on hitting the ball obviously in the fairway.”
He’ll have some fairly large hills to climb – literal and figurative – on that 7,406-yard course, not the least of which is a front-row seat to Koepka, whose steely precision was near mechanical. It provided a stark contrast to Woods' own mercurial play.
“It wasn't as clean as I'd like to have it, for sure,” Woods said. “Got it back under par for the day, and let a couple slip away with a couple bad putts and a couple mistakes at the end.”