Tiger Woods could be clutching at straws in his bid to revive the glory days. Optimism from his long-awaited comeback in the Bahamas towards the end of last year has quickly evaporated. A missed cut on his return to the PGA Tour last week could well be followed by another early exit, this time on the European Tour.
A week after opening with a 76 in the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, the 14-time major winner signed for a 77 in the first round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. The five-over-par effort was his worst by two shots at Emirates Golf Club, where he’s made eight appearances, including two victories. A first birdie-free round on the Majlis Course was also the 41-year-old’s highest score in a regular European Tour event.
In a nutshell, it was a performance that offered little to suggest that Woods can get back to his best following that lengthy lay-off caused by three separate back surgeries. It was notable mainly for the damaging start that he’s been prone to over the years. A badly pulled drive was to blame on this occasion as he opened on the 10th with a bogey-6. Everything, in truth, was a struggle from then on, but he had particular problems on the greens. His frustration in that respect boiled over at the third, his 12th. “F***,” said Woods, loudly, as he failed woefully with a 10-foot birdie attempt. The only putt of note he holed was from a similar distance at the 18th to salvage a bogey after seeing his third shot spin back into the water.
“I didn’t hit the ball very well,” admitted Woods as he reflected on an effort that left him sitting 12 shots behind the pacesetter, Sergio Garcia. “At the end, I finally hit some good ones, but damage had already been done. I could have hung in there and shot something near even par if I’d made some putts, but I made nothing. I left probably about 16 putts short. I just couldn’t get the speed of these things, and consequently, it added up to a pretty high number.”
Since shooting a second-day 65 in his own event, the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in early December, he’s failed to break 70 in five rounds. With strong winds forecast in the UAE today, Woods isn’t ruling out his chances of still salvaging something positive from this event, but he admits that his game has gone backwards rather than forward, as he’d been hoping it would.
“I certainly drove it better in the Bahamas,” he said. “The last two drives I hit off eight and nine today were better, and I need to figure out what the hell I did that was different, and then replicate it for another 54 holes, hopefully. I’m fighting my ass off to try and shoot a score. Today I was trying to get back to even par and I kept telling Joey (his caddie Joe LaCava), ‘we can get this thing going, we can get it moving’. It just never materialised.
Hopefully the wind blows tomorrow and I shoot a good round and get back to even par.”
In his pre-event press conference, Woods had talked about how he wanted to have a swing that enabled him to play pain-free. There was no disguising the fact that he was walking gingerly throughout his round, but he denied that had been due to any issues with his back. “I wasn’t in pain at all,” he said. “I was just trying to hit shots and I wasn’t doing a very good job. Now I need to go out tomorrow and play a really solid round and give myself more looks at birdies.”
One of Woods’s playing partners, Matt Fitzpatrick, gave himself plenty of opportunities in his opening round and converted most of them. The 22-year-old marked his first outing in Woods’s company with a 69. “It was a tremendous experience,” said Fitzpatrick, who won the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates in November. “I’m flattered to play with him, but never imagined I’d beat him by eight shots. It’s only his second tournament back and anybody is going to be rusty after that much time off.”
Garcia’s effort, which included an eagle and six birdies, represented a 10-shot improvement on his first-round score here two years ago, when he missed the cut. With four top-20 finishes between 2009 and 2013, though, the Spaniard knows his way around this place and was certainly pleased with his morning’s work. “It was good solid, round and a nice way to start,” he said. “There were a lot of good positives out there. I felt like I was quite committed for pretty much every shot I hit it. I also made some really nice putts here and there.”
Garcia played the final few holes in a stiffening breeze. “It was getting a little bit tasty there at the end,” he admitted after establishing a one-shot lead over South African George Coetzee and Chilean Felipe Aguilar. The wind could really be blowing today, with the possibility even that play might have to be suspended. “Tomorrow is supposed to be a tough day,” added Garcia. “They are even speaking about not knowing if we are able to play. Hopefully that doesn’t happen, but you get these sandstorms once in a while here and, unfortunately, it’s catching us.”
Among those trying to catch the leader is Ian Poulter, who marked his first appearance in the event nine years with a 67, his best score on this course. “There were still a couple of mis-hits in there and, the perfectionist I am, I want to eradicate those,” said the Englishman. “When I do, we’ll start to shoot some real low rounds of golf. I feel ready to go.”
Henrik Stenson’s morning 68 was matched by Rayhan Thomas, the 17-year-old UAE-based Indian who won the Scottish Boys’ Stroke-Play Championship at Lanark last summer. “I’m not really thinking about making the cut, but it would be awesome if I did in my home open,” said Thomas after singing for six birdies in the company of two of his compatriots, Anirban Lahiri and SSP Chowrasia. “My gameplan worked today, so I just need to stick to it tomorrow.”