CHIBA, Japan — It was just a single round, of course, so there is a reluctance to draw too many conclusions.
But after seeing Tiger Woods in his skins game appearance Monday, during the pro-am Wednesday and now after a first-round 64 at the Zozo Championship, it is clear there is a physical difference from just a few months ago when the Masters champion was having trouble completing pro-am rounds.
Woods looks good, and appears to be swinging easier and without pain. There’s always the chance that something else occurs, but clearly the back stiffness that plagued him for most of the summer and the knee problems that led to surgery in late August impacted his play.
“I was trying to make compensations,” Woods said after taking a share of the first-round lead with Gary Woodland at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club. “Unfortunately, with the lack of movement that I had in my knee, my back, too — and that’s the last place I want to feel it. So it was nice to be able to feel that and I’m able to rotate a little bit better, able to clear better, and more importantly, be able to squat down and read putts.
“I was able to get down there [in the first round], which I’ve been doing at home, and that’s something that if you look at the video towards the end of the season, I wasn’t able to do very well.”
The knee problems might not have contributed fully to Woods’ summertime woes — one top-10, two missed cuts, a withdrawal — but they certainly didn’t help. And back problems have always manifested themselves in poor posture in putting as well as inconsistent short-iron play.
Woods had few of those problems in the opening round. After the poor start that saw him bogey the first three holes, Woods settled into a nice rhythm and exhibited his world-class iron play. He hit only three fairways but was able to play from the rough and stuck a number of nice iron shots to give himself opportunities. For the day, he hit 15 of 18 greens, an impressive number given his poor start to the tournament.
Clearly, Woods needs to put more balls in play off the tee. And his putting is unlikely to be as hot as it was during the opening round.
But for one day, it was a big difference from what we got used to seeing after the Masters victory.
“This is how I’ve been hitting it at home, so that wasn’t a real big surprise,” he said. “It’s a matter of, with a scorecard in your hand, you’ve got to post a number now. You’re not playing for autos and hammers (in gambling games) like we normally do at home. It’s actually time to grind out a score.
“It was ugly early and it was nice to be able to flip it and really get it going. Now I’m in a position where we’re going to have a long, long weekend of golf that I hopefully can keep going.”
The results have been sporadic for Woodland since his U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach, due in part to his wife having twins a few weeks later and the inherent distractions and time off necessary to welcome two new family members.
Woodland missed two cuts and his best finish was a tie for 15th at the Tour Championship until he tied for third last week at the CJ Cup in South Korea.
He continued the good form Thursday with a 64 to tie Woods. Woodland birdied his final hole to grab a share of the lead.
“The ball striking is coming back where I want it,” Woodland said. “I’ve had to rely on that. And when I putt it well, good things will happen. I started to hit it well last weekend and I hit it great again [in the first round].”
This is Woodland’s last tournament appearance before Woods makes his at-large selections as Presidents Cup captain on Nov. 7. Woodland finished 10th in the final standings.
“He knows how much I want to be on that team,” Woodland said. “I’ve talked to him about it. So for me, I’ll just go out and play well and everything will take care of that.”
Woods talked about the knowledgeable golf fans in Japan and the passion they bring to the sport. And that has been apparent so far at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club, where the logistics are not great for crowds as large as those that showed up Thursday.
Traffic was jammed on the way to the course, causing delays. More than 20,000 spectators were expected for each round of the tournament, which is a sellout. Tournament officials said more than 5,000 people were on the grounds by 7 a.m. with the first tee times not until 8 a.m. local time.
“The golf courses are beautiful in this country and the showing [Tuesday] was insane for the weather we had,” said Jordan Spieth, referring to all-day rain. “That was as incredible a welcome as we’ve felt in as long as I can remember on a Tuesday in bad weather.
“Especially playing with Hideki [Matsuyama] this week, expect it to be pretty exciting out there.”
Spieth had some poor fortune on the par-4 ninth hole when his tee shot went into the rough and stopped just behind a large tree root. He attempted to play a shot that would get over the root but only moved it a few inches. When trying again, Spieth advanced the ball but his club and hand took the brunt of the force, and he was visibly in pain. Spieth made a double-bogey 6 on the hole and finished with a 74.
The forecast calls for nearly all-day rain and plenty of it, perhaps as much as 4 inches on Friday in Japan (Thursday night in the U.S.). Tournament officials elected to move up tee times by an hour, with the first groups going off at 7 a.m. local time (6 p.m. ET) to try and get in as much play as possible.
“It’s going to be sloppy and tough for us tomorrow morning before the storm gets in and I think we’re probably going to get little bit wet playing out there and then it’s going to be a grind on the weekend,” Woods said. “There’s going to be a lot of golf on the weekend for all of us, probably 54 holes for some of the guys on the weekend. So it’s going to be a long couple of days.”
PGA Tour in Japan
This is the first year of the Zozo Championship and the first official PGA Tour event in Japan. With that, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan traveled to Tokyo to be on hand.
“There has long been a desire as we committed to bring the PGA Tour to Asia — in Malaysia, in China and ultimately Korea,” Monahan said. “There just wasn’t an opportunity at that point in time to bring an event ot Japan because you need to have a great sponsor.”
Monahan noted that the PGA Tour set up an office in Tokyo in 2016 that allowed the organization to establish some roots and get to understand the corporate landscape. Zozo came on board with a six-year sponsorship agreement giving the tour Asian events in South Korea, Japan and China.
“Our intention is to never leave Japan, to always have a PGA Tour event in Japan from this day forward,” Monahan said.
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