Woods sputters, Palmer takes early lead in Phoenix

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Tiger Woods (Sam Greenwood/ Getty Images)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Tiger Woods helped attract a record, raucous crowd to the Phoenix Open on Thursday, the first big event in a week that concludes with the Super Bowl.

They didn’t see much game – at least not from Woods.

In his first appearance at the TPC Scottsdale in 14 years – and only his second tournament in six months – Woods couldn’t hit the green with three chip shots and was near the bottom of the leaderboard until two key shots on the back nine salvaged a 2-over 73.

It was the first time in his career that Woods shot over par in his first round of the year. And he already was nine shots behind Ryan Palmer, who opened with a 7-under 64 to build a one-shot lead when play was suspended by darkness.

“This is my second tournament in six months, so I just need tournament rounds like this where I can fight through it, turn it around, grind through it and make adjustments on the fly,” Woods said.

He was 5 over through 11 holes when Woods hit a 5-iron to a foot for a tap-in eagle on the 13th hole. After making it through the par-3 16th hole, where he twice had to back off shots when someone shouted as he stood over the ball, he hit his best drive of the day that bounded onto the green at the par-4 17th and set up a two-putt birdie.

The fans didn’t seem to mind. They were happy to see golf’s biggest star at their outdoor party for the first time since 2001, back when Woods was No. 1 in the world and headed for an unprecedented sweep of the majors.

The attendance was 118,461 – more than the Super Bowl will get on Sunday – and broke the Thursday record at the Phoenix Open by just over 30,000.

What they saw was a player who suddenly has developed grave issues with his short game – particularly his chipping.

Woods is working with a new swing consultant, Chris Como, who is not in Phoenix this week. He still has trouble taking his game from the practice range to the golf course, which is nothing new. But when he last played, at the Hero World Challenge, what stood out was a series of chips that he either stubbed or bladed.

Two months later, nothing changed.

The focus on Woods quickly shifted from a chipped tooth to simply his chipping.

Woods twice chipped with 4-irons, which he called my “old-school shots from Augusta.” On two other occasions, one after a chip he knocked across and over the green, he opted for a putter. It wasn’t a bad play, but it used to be rare to see Woods choose to putt from the fairway instead of chip.

He attributed it to the change in his swing.

“I’m just having a hard time finding the bottom,” Woods said. “Because of my old pattern, I was so steep on it that I have a new grind on my wedge and sometimes it’s hard to trust. Some of my shots were into the green with tight pins and either I’ll flop it or bump it, one of the two. I chose to bump it.”

Palmer was 10-under par through 10 holes last week in the Humana Challenge and settled for a 61. He was 7 under through 12 holes on Thursday and then closed with six straight pars for a 64.

That gave him a one-shot lead over Keegan Bradley, who made seven birdies in the morning, and Masters champion Bubba Watson, whose tee shot on the 17th hole rolled a few inches from the cup and settled 4 feet away.

Woods was in the group ahead of him, and it’s customary for players to step aside when they’re on the 17th green to let the others hit their tee shots. Woods smiled when Watson approached and told him, “Good shot.”

Watson also got caught up in the crowd, a benefit of playing so close to Woods.

“I could feel his crowd was really big,” Watson said. “You could feel it, the energy, even with the weather the way it was. People still showed up. People still had a blast. And obviously, Tiger created a lot of that.”

Bradley could sense it, too, even though he played on the opposite side of the draw. Bradley finished his round on No. 9 and hit what he thought was a great approach, except that he wasn’t sure because no one was clapping. He turned to his caddie and asked him if it went over the green, or maybe even short of the green. And then he walked up to the green and saw it was 10 feet away. That’s when the light came on.

“Tiger was on the second green. No one was watching me,” Bradley said with a laugh. “It’s just amazing to see the draw that Tiger has. Wow, there was a lot of people.”

They saw some good golf – just not very often from Woods.

The crowd rose to its feet as Woods walked from the putting green to the first tee, and the anticipation began to build when the starter announced him as the winner of 79 PGA Tour events and 14 majors. He had 24 wins and five majors the last time he played.

And then Woods sent his tee shot off the backyard wall of a house and back into the desert. He made the turn in 39 – his age.

But he didn’t have to chip again on the back nine, played better, hit two great shots (for eagle and birdie) and walked off with reasonable hopes of making it to the weekend. Woods hasn’t played much of late from back injuries and recovery time. Even so, he made it clear that it could take time to heal – certainly quicker than getting his teeth fixed.

Another player on his game Thursday was Canada’s Graham DeLaet.

DeLaet lives in Scottsdale. “It’s nice to be home and doesn’t really feel like a tournament week until you get out here,” DeLaet said after a 67. “Sleeping in your own bed is always great.”

The Weyburn, Sask. native carded a 4-under 67.

Cory Renfrew – a Monday qualifier – was the only other Canadian to sit on the better side of par Thursday. The Victoria, B.C. native was 1-under with one hole remaining Thursday.