- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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"He kicked my a--,'' Woods said Thursday, not completely in jest, after a lackluster 1-under 71 at Muirfield Village Golf Club left him six strokes back of leader Charl Schwartzel -- and a shot behind Couples -- after one round of the Memorial Tournament.
Woods, 37, the defending champion, made five birdies and four bogeys and was outplayed by Couples, who is in the field because he will captain the U.S. Presidents Cup team later this year at Muirfield.
Couples, who has played just six times this year and only twice on the PGA Tour, said he requested to play with Woods but first wanted to make sure it was OK with the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
"I sent him a text and said, 'Do you really want me in this group?' " said Couples, who skipped last week's Senior PGA Championship because of back problems. "I've played no golf and you're nervous playing with him.''
Couples did not look nervous Thursday, needing just 25 putts in a round of 70. The winner here in 1998, Couples had not shot lower than 71 at Muirfield since a 69 in the opening round in 2006.
Woods has now been under par in 16 of his last 17 rounds on the PGA Tour, but he clearly was not pleased with his performance Thursday. He hit 11 of 14 fairways, including all seven on the back nine, but struggled with other parts of his game. He needed 30 putts after hitting 13 greens in regulation.
"I didn't score very well compared to how I hit it,'' said Woods, who has won four times this year on the PGA Tour and is trying to win the Memorial for the sixth time. "I hit it pretty good. I just didn't make anything today.''
Woods, tied for 27th, later said: "I probably could have got a few more out of it.''
A sure sign that Woods is off is the way he played the par 5s. He was even par on those holes Thursday, including a bogey 6 at the par-5 15th, where he had to lay up after a poor drive, hit his approach from 110 yards over the green, then hit a poor chip shot. He rebounded with a birdie at the 17th hole, but then hit a drive in the wrong spot of the 18th fairway, meaning he couldn't get to the green. He failed to get up-and-down for par from in front of a greenside bunker.
"It was probably the highest score I could have shot,'' Woods said. "I played a lot better than my score indicates. Hopefully tomorrow, I can clean up and make a few more putts and get on a roll.''
For Couples, who tied for 13th last month at the Masters, it seemed more like a sentimental journey.
"It might be my last time playing with Tiger,'' he said. "So I was blessed to play with him. And my goal when I play with him always is to try to hit it solid and stay out of his way. And today was a good one.
"He's the best player, and I play on the Champions Tour, so I rarely get to see him. Around Augusta, I always try to hit balls next to him.''
Couples came to Ohio after a trip to the White House on Wednesday with International Presidents Cup team captain Nick Price. They visited with President Obama for 20 minutes.
"It was pretty special,'' Couples said. "Instead of flying here, I went into Dulles (airport in Washington, D.C.), and I got here late. Just hit balls and didn't play the course. ... I was not expecting 70. I'm not going to lie to anyone. But I'm thrilled.''
Woods, not so much.
This is his last tournament before the U.S. Open, which begins June 13 outside of Philadelphia at Merion Golf Club, which he visited Monday. But he gets right back at it Friday morning, along with Couples and Keegan Bradley (71).
Schwartzel hit the ball so consistently well at Muirfield that the former Masters champion twice had stretches of four straight birdies. He made a double-bogey with an 8-iron in hand and his ball on a tee toward the end of the round, but he got rid of that bad taste with one last birdie for a 7-under 65.
Schwartzel had a one-shot lead over Scott Piercy, who went from smashing it, to playing it safe.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.