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Tiger Woods limps to a 74 in first round of PGA Championship, and it’s only going to get worse

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/19/2022 Ben Volin
His tee ball on the ninth hole had Tiger Woods wincing a bit. He would bogey the hole. © Richard Heathcote His tee ball on the ninth hole had Tiger Woods wincing a bit. He would bogey the hole.

TULSA, Okla. — When Tiger Woods approached the interview room following his first round at Thursday’s PGA Championship, a member of his entourage handed a folded-up piece of paper to the people running the press conference.

It had a simple message: “3 questions.”

Woods was not in much of a mood to discuss his opening-round 74, which left him in a tie for 99th place, nine shots off the lead. Nor did he want to discuss the state of his right leg, which was noticeably balky. On his 17th hole, hole No. 8, Woods stumbled after his tee shot and grimaced in pain.

“Yeah, my leg is not feeling as good as I would like it to be,” is all he offered. “We’ll start the recovery process and get after it tomorrow.”

Woods won the 2007 PGA Championship here at Southern Hills, but the course left him a broken and humbled man Thursday. Limping through 18 holes on a right leg that almost needed to be amputated 15 months ago following a single-car crash, Woods produced more Awkward Claps from the gallery than Tiger Roars. He carded three birdies against seven bogeys, and shot 39 on his back nine.

“I was struggling trying to get the ball on the green, and I missed quite a few iron shots both ways,” Woods said. “It was a frustrating day.”

His disappointment perhaps was exacerbated by the fact that the playing conditions Thursday morning were pretty much the easiest he is going to face this week, or at the other majors this summer. Southern Hills doesn’t really have many hills, and Woods got a break with the weather.

When Woods won here in 2007, the daily high temperatures were 101, 99, 99, and 102 degrees. But he and partners Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, who teed off at 8:11 a.m., were spared the worst that Southern Hills has to offer Thursday. It was 72 degrees with a delightful breeze at tee-off, reaching 80 degrees at the turn and 86 on the final hole. For a 46-year-old hobbling around on one leg, the break in the heat was a gift.

The name Southern Hills is a misnomer; there’s really just one hill, singular. You play downhill on 1 and 10, and uphill on 9 and 18, but otherwise it is a parkland-style course with gentle, rolling terrain.

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Earlier this week, Woods reflected on making the cut last month at the Masters, where he finished 47th in his first event post-leg injury. Augusta National is the hilliest of the four major venues this year, and Woods expected his challenge to get easier through the summer. After this week’s PGA, Woods hopes to play in June’s US Open at The Country Club in Brookline and July’s British Open at St. Andrews.

“The first mountain you climbed was Everest,” Woods said of Augusta National. “It’s going to get flatter and better.”

Without the heat, Southern Hills was definitely “gettable” in the morning. McIlroy carded seven birdies en route to a 65 and the first-round lead at 5 under. Will Zalatoris, playing in the group ahead of Woods, carded six birdies and finished with a 66 and a tie for second, along with Tom Hoge. All of the low scores came from golfers who teed off before 9:30 a.m.

But flatter and cooler did not equal easier for Woods (or Spieth, who finished plus-2 and skipped the interview room altogether).

Starting on the back nine, Woods was 2 under through five holes, but had only one more birdie over the final 13 holes, against seven bogeys.

He was beset by poor approach shots, reaching only 7 of 18 greens in regulation. Several bunker shots flew well past the hole. His final two tee shots of the day were sprayed wildly into the gallery, though he struck a tree and bounced back onto the fairway on No. 9.

“I really didn’t give myself any looks for birdie,” Woods said. “I got off to a great start and didn’t keep it going.”

And he’s clearly not himself physically, which is to be expected given the severity of his leg injury. Woods often used a club as a crutch while walking off the tee box and down the fairway.

“Be careful Tiger!” a fan yelled out as Woods gingerly walked down the 10th tee.

Then there was the stumble on No. 8, and the grimace in obvious pain.

“I just can’t load it,” he said of his right leg. “Loading hurts, pressing off it hurts, and walking hurts, and twisting hurts.”

In other words, playing golf hurts.

Woods’s performance at Augusta was gutsy, memorable, and borderline heroic. He hoped it was a sign of better days ahead.

“I’ve gotten stronger since then,” he said this week. “It was more mind than body. I said, ‘I’ve won with a broken leg before [the 2008 US Open]. Keep on going out there, keep pushing.’ ”

Thursday’s round must have been pretty demoralizing then. At Augusta, Thursday was his best day, with Woods carding a 71. He finished the tournament 74-78-78 as the pain from his leg grew worse. The ice bath was already filled and waiting for him each day as he returned from the course. His body was a wreck by the end of the weekend.

“Monday was not fun,” he said earlier this week.

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If Thursday was Woods’s best round at Southern Hills, he is in trouble. Friday, he tees off at 1:36 p.m. and will have to deal with scorching heat over all 18 holes.

Next month’s US Open won’t be any easier, with The Country Club’s hilly terrain and gnarly rough. St. Andrew’s will have wind, rain, and who knows what other type of tricky conditions.

Woods may have conquered Everest by finishing 47th at the Masters. But he may have underestimated the challenges ahead, or overestimated the state of his game.

Southern Hills left Woods broken Thursday, physically and in spirit. And it’s only going to get tougher.


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