FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The wait between Tiger Woods’ final putt at last month’s Masters and his first drive at the PGA Championship was 32 days. It was a period of intense celebration, not-so-quiet nostalgia and renewed speculation over whether Woods can catch Jack Nicklaus and his hallowed record of 18 majors.
It was not, however, a period that saw Woods hit a competitive golf shot as the 43-year-old elected to rest a body that will need more and more breaks as time goes on.
At times during Thursday’s first round, the extended layoff, which included skipping out on Wednesday’s practice round, seemed like a mistake.
Over one stretch, it seemed like a calculated blessing.
In the end, Woods carded a meh 2-over 72 on a sunny morning at Bethpage Black, a result that neither crowns nor dooms him for what lies ahead this weekend. Woods posted two double bogeys over the first nine holes, rebounded by going birdie-birdie-par-eagle on the course’s first four holes and finished with three bogeys over the last five holes of the round.
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While Woods hit his share of fairways, his bogeys on the fifth, seventh and eighth exposed some putter troubles that could be the product of rust. All that time off and he couldn’t have hit one putt-putt course?
But truth be told, it might not matter what Woods or the rest of the field does over the final three days if Brooks Koepka keeps playing like he did on Thursday. Playing with Woods and Francesco Molinari, Koepka posted a seven-birdie, bogey-free round of 63 for a new course record and early clubhouse lead.
He drained a 33-footer for birdie on his final hole to cap his round.
Koepka, who is the reigning two-time U.S. Open champion, could also become the reigning two-time PGA Championship winner with a victory at Bethpage. He’s won three of the last eight majors dating back to the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Seeing Woods walk alongside Koepka on Thursday provided a stark contrast. The age difference between the two is 14 years and Koepka strides from hole to hole like he just stepped off the cover of a fitness magazine. Woods used to do the same, but time and injuries won’t allow that any more. Woods’ walk was a bit more labored, a bit more sweaty and, at times, a bit more pained.
Those limitations won’t go away at this point and they provide plenty of reasons to believe the challenging Bethpage Black track will break down older competitors as Erin Hills did in 2017. That sloping course was the site of Koepka’s breakout and it’s not hard to see the same story playing out by the time the Sunday sun sets on Long Island.
But those limitations were also cited as the reasons Woods would never post another tour win, let alone a major victory. As Woods’ performance showed on Thursday, the truth is somewhere in between.
An even tougher three days lie ahead.
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