- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- The game of golf rarely looks as easy as it did for Tiger Woods on Thursday. Even at the height of his dominance, it never appeared to be that simple.
He was always getting up and down from garbage cans and maneuvering his way around, over or under trees. He would find harrowing trouble and miraculously emerge better from it. Part of his immense brilliance was his ability to somehow turn a score of 73 into a 68.
So there he was at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, hardly breaking a sweat on the first day of his new year. Amazingly, only once did he pull out a wedge to hit a chip shot -- and it came on the very first hole. He hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation. Of the four fairways he missed, never did he send a spectator scurrying.
Only when he got to the greens could you find fault with Woods. A ball-striking round like the one he had at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship should have yielded far fewer strokes than the 70 he signed for after 18 holes.
And haven't we seen this before?
Woods blamed his woes on the grainy Bermuda greens, a problem he has cited numerous times in recent years as the putts have not dropped as often as they did during his storied past. It wasn't so much the stroke -- although that has been an issue at times -- as it was figuring out the line.
Although Woods did not appear or sound particularly perturbed by his fate after his first round of the 2012 season, nothing could be more frustrating for a golfer. The hard work, seemingly, comes in hitting the ball where you want. And all who follow Woods are keenly aware of his swing issues of the past few seasons.
But putting? It is harder than it looks, certainly, but it seems that any of us could do it.
And not that anybody needed a reminder, but there was Rory McIlroy playing alongside Woods -- and doing what Woods for years made look routine.
The reigning U.S. Open champion was not hitting shots off the golf course, but he had his struggles. He managed to hit just six fairways and only 12 greens in regulation. Five times he found bunkers. Yet he walked away with a 67 to tie for the first-round lead, needing just 25 putts.
Afterward, one inquisitor mentioned to McIlroy that "you out Tigered-Tiger," and that was certainly the case at the par-5 eighth hole, his 17th of the day, where McIlroy's tee shot found the rough, as did his second, and again his third. Then he chipped in for birdie.
And you couldn't help thinking: That's what Tiger used to do.
"I felt like I wasn't seeing the fairway at all on that back nine," McIlroy said. "I even said to Tiger, 'I've got to hit a few more fairways here.' And he said, 'Doesn't look like you need to.'"
Woods has produced countless such magic acts over a career that has seen him win 83 worldwide titles, including 14 major championships. And you wonder whether he might not like to go back to it at times.
He suffered a similar fate in November at the Presidents Cup, when, during the Saturday best-ball match with partner Dustin Johnson, Woods hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation but could not buy a putt, losing the match.
Since last winning an official event in November 2009, Woods has had on-again, off-again struggles with the putter. He first switched away from his trusty Scotty Cameron at the 2010 British Open, went back and forth, and has now been using a Nike Method putter.
At the Presidents Cup, Steve Stricker gave Woods a tip to move the ball back in his stance ever so slightly, and it resulted in a singles-match romp over Aaron Baddeley and was a helpful factor in his victory at the Chevron World Challenge. But even there, he had frustrating moments on the greens, just as he did Thursday.
"To be honest, I've always struggled to read the greens here as well," said McIlroy, who is making his fifth appearance in the event. "I think there's quite a bit of grain, but it's not very apparent. The green doesn't change color that much or the holes don't get as damaged as much as they would in Florida or somewhere like that. It's pretty hard to read the grain.
"I've been able to hole my fair share of putts around here the last couple of years, so I feel like I'm getting used to them."
Yet the greens are not far removed from the kind Woods plays at home in Florida. Although there are different types of Bermuda greens, they all have a grain that has to be accounted for, unlike truer putting surfaces.
Here, while the greens were not slow, neither were they particularly undulating.
And so it was that Woods simply couldn't figure them out.
"I hit a lot of good putts, I just didn't read the greens well at all," he said. "I struggled with speed. And if you struggle with speed you're going to struggle with the greens. Some of the putts, the grain snagged it hard; other putts, it didn't snag them at all.
"I had a hard time seeing it. I just have to do a better job of that tomorrow. I hit a lot of pure putts. I'm not disappointed in that regard. I just did not need them at all. I just need to do a lot better job of that."
Interestingly, Woods did not stick around afterward to work it out. After a corporate meet-and-greet and a few media queries, he left the course -- although he has an afternoon tee time Friday (3:05 a.m. ET) and might very well spend time on the practice green.
When it was all done, he trailed Round 1 leaders Robert Karlsson and McIlroy by 3 strokes and was tied for ninth. Karlsson had raved about the purity of the greens, which is not exactly the way Woods saw it. But he did see how McIlroy performed, and it got the job done.
"He didn't drive it very good, but he hit a lot of quality irons when he was in position to do it," Woods said. "And his short game was great. He putted well. The putts he made, they didn't lip in. They poured in there."
Which again begs a question: How many times have we heard that said of Woods?
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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