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 tenth with a bogey six. 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 ten-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 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 to 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.”
Matt Fitzpatrick marked his first outing in Woods’ company with a 69. “It was a tremendous experience,” said the 22-year-old, 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 ten-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 a good solid, round and a nice way to start,” he said.
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.”