Annoyed Tiger Woods shows progress
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- You'd be hard-pressed to have a bad experience on the Monterey Peninsula, where the weather was perfect Thursday, the golf courses used for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am pristine, the atmosphere juiced with the return of Tiger Woods for the first time in 10 years.
Woods might loathe the six-hour rounds that are common at this event, but he steeled himself for the long day. He might prefer to skip the pro-am experience, but lined himself up with a strong partner in Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. He even got tournament officials to put Isleworth buddy Arjun Atwal as the other pro in his group.
Then he got to play the Spyglass Hill course that has never really been that kind to him in the type of environment that he generally prefers, which would be (relatively) hard and fast, as opposed to the soft, soggy conditions that players often find when they come to this tournament in the winter.
Making his season debut on the PGA Tour, Woods continued along the solid path that has seen him play well since November in Australia, to his charity tournament in Southern California to the Middle East and now to Northern California, where he shot 4-under-par 68.
It was the fourth-best round on the course that is generally considered the most difficult of the three-tournament rotation -- Monterey Peninsula and Pebble Beach being the others. And it was marked by a good statistical day that saw the former No. 1 hit a bunch of fairways and greens.
Atwal praised his game, as did Romo. Coach Sean Foley was pleased, noting how good Woods hit it on the range prior to the round, and his ability to bring it to the course. A big crowd of spectators seemed happy to see Tiger make six birdies and just two bogeys.
But one guy was a bit miffed when it was all over. Not fuming, not aggravated. Just perturbed that the round wasn't better.
And that was Tiger.
"It's frustrating that I had wedges [into greens] and I didn't capitalize on it,'' Woods said. "You look at the board and you have [three] guys at 9 [under], two guys at 8 and two guys at 7. They're tearing the golf courses apart. This is the harder of the three, so hopefully I can get it going in the next couple of days.''
It was clearly a day to take advantage of the perfect conditions. Dustin Johnson made two eagles on his front nine at Pebble Beach and shot 63, as did Danny Lee. Charlie Wi shot 61 on the par-70 Monterey Peninsula course to also get to 9 under par. Ken Duke had 28 on the back nine at Pebble for 64.
There was a scoring onslaught on the three courses, with 87 players breaking par. Woods found himself nicely positioned in a tie for 15th, but annoyed it wasn't better.
And perhaps that is a good indicator in Woods' return.
Throughout last fall and into the first part of 2012 as he posted three top-3 finishes in stroke-play events while adding an impressive Presidents Cup performance, Woods was never willing to stray too far into negative territory.
Poor putting was due to being unable to figure out the greens, not a bad stroke. A few missed drives were not the product of a new swing failing to hold up, but simply being a fraction off. Irons shots that were not close to the hole were at least pin high. Nothing but positives.
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But Thursday, despite a lot of laughs with Romo and Atwal, and a generally good score, Woods showed slight annoyance with himself.
"I didn't give myself enough good looks when I had wedges in my hand,'' he said. "I have to do a better job of that when I have the wedges in my hand. & I'm going to work on that.''
It looked pretty good when Woods knocked a wedge from 146 yards off the flagstick at the 10th hole -- his first -- and converted the 3½ -footer for birdie. And when he followed with a birdie at the par-5 second after missing an eagle putt from 15 feet.
Woods hit 12 of 14 fairways -- including all seven over his final nine holes -- and 13 of 18 greens, with 29 putts. All are good signs, even if he didn't hit the ball as close to the pin as he would like.
And despite the major flaw he pointed out, Woods certainly had his admirers.
Atwal was impressed with Woods' work on the par-5s, a particular sore spot during his struggles over a two-year-plus winless streak. Woods used to dominate those holes to the tune of typically being among the top five on the PGA tour.
"That's what he used to do back in the day,'' Atwal said. "He used to get an extra gear and get another 10 [yards] out of it and he did that today. Even the misses are a lot tighter.''
Romo seemed to have a bit of stage fright, which seems strange for a guy used to competing in front of 70,000 screaming fans. Of course, he's not playing golf in front of them, and even a strong player like Romo is going to have some jitters in a setting such as this.
A scratch golfer, Romo contributed three strokes to the team -- a birdie and two pars on holes where Woods made bogeys. Along with Woods' six birdies, they shot 7 under.
"He's an outstanding player and competitor,'' Romo said. "Anybody who walks along and sees the shots knows he's hitting the ball well. He's got a great shot this week.''
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Whether he does or not will likely be determined by how he plays on Friday at Monterey Peninsula. The par-70 course is generally considered the easiest of the three. Wi had a legitimate shot at shooting 59 and with the weather expected to be ideal again, getting well into red numbers is going to be key if Woods is to have a shot at his first official victory since November 2009.
Perhaps the best thing Woods has going for him is that he got a tad angry with himself. That typically worked for him when he was racking up all those victories.
But since returning from injury last August, despite proclaiming his goal is to win each tournament, Woods undoubtedly had to go easier on himself. He missed four months of golf, not to mention the ability to train. He didn't get to work on the changes with Foley that were far from engrained. It was understandable if, deep down, he cut himself a break.
He wasn't doing that Thursday. Asked if it was a good sign that he seemed displeased with a 68, Woods said, "I don't know if it's a good sign or a bad sign.''
On a day and at a place where you could see forever, it seemed clear it was a positive development.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.