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Woods has painful first round at U.S. Open

Tiger Woods, walking 18 holes for the first time since the Masters, fades on the back nine as the U.S. Open begins.

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Tiger Woods, walking 18 holes for the first time since the Masters, fades on the back nine as the U.S. Open begins.

SAN DIEGO

He began playing competitive golf again around 8:06 a.m. Pacific time. He began cursing aloud somewhere around 8:21 a.m. Ah Tiger, it's good to have you back.

The world's greatest golfer was less than two months removed from knee surgery and had not walked 18 holes of golf since the Masters, so you figured it would take him some time to tap into his inner Tiger-ness.

In this case, it required six strokes. On the par-4 first hole of the U.S. Open.

Tiger Woods overshot the green, and then missed a short putt that would have given him a bogey. When he finally got the ball in the cup, he stepped off the green and uttered but a single syllable.

"Fudge!"

Or a word to that effect.

"It helps when you hit six shots on the first hole to get into the flow," Woods said later. "That's a lot of shots to get into a flow. Just a terrible way to start."

And, just like that, Woods was back. He played the next 12 holes at 3 under, and you began to wonder if you were watching the latest chapter in Tiger lore. Bury the Field at Wounded Knee.

Except this Tiger tale is real, and so is the pain in his left knee. Woods' drives became erratic on the back nine, and he needed several impressive putts just to save par. He had another double bogey at No. 14, and was grateful to finish the day four strokes behind the leaders.

All things considered, it was still a remarkable performance. Woods has barely been able to walk, let alone practice in recent weeks. He wasn't well enough to play a tune-up match at the Memorial two weeks ago, and he hadn't progressed enough to play all 18 holes at Torrey Pines without using a cart before Thursday's first round.

Adam Scott, who was grouped with Woods and Phil Mickelson, said he never noticed Woods in any obvious pain. When told Woods winced noticeably on his tee shot at No. 18, Scott just grinned.

"He hit that drive 360 yards," Scott said. "It didn't seem like he was in pain."

Maybe that's because Woods would rather watch televised hockey than show weakness. Remember, this is a guy who played 72 holes at Augusta without mentioning to anyone that he was 48 hours away from knee surgery. And, by the way, he managed to finish second. In fact, while playing with loose cartilage floating in his knee, Woods did not have a single round over par before heading in for arthroscopic surgery.

Even now, Woods is loathe to admit the knee is giving him problems.

Are you in pain now, Tiger?

"Um-hum."

Are you taking any medications, anti-inflammatories?

"Oh, yeah."

Did the pain affect your round?

"I just go play."

Will you go to treatment now? Ice the knee? Sit in a whirlpool?

"Um-hum."

While others go in search for excuses, Woods keeps his locked in some back room. If he doesn't acknowledge them, he won't be tempted to rely on them.

This aversion to mortality makes the next three days difficult to predict. You could make the argument that Woods came walking off the street to shoot 72 on the first day of the U.S. Open, and will only get sharper as the tournament progresses.

Or you might suggest the discomfort in his knee will only worsen as he plays four consecutive days, and we may have already seen his best round of the tournament.

My guess is the knee is still too tender. And his focus is not quite there.

Woods said he was heartened to be 1 over in a round with two double bogeys and a three-putt on No. 18. The flip side is that he was fortunate to still be in contention with several saves out of bunkers, and an approach shot that stayed in bounds on No. 9 only because it hit a spectator in the shoulder.

"I'm right there," Woods said. "I'm only four back. I'm in good shape."

Good shape is a relative condition. Being four shots behind such nondescript players as Justin Hicks and Kevin Streelman with 54 holes to go would certainly qualify as good shape for Woods.

But having a cranky left knee and missing nearly two months of training before playing on the longest course in U.S. Open history doesn't sound like a guy in good shape.

Only Woods knows for sure what his chances are in the next three days. Whether he can stay in contention long enough to make a run on Sunday, or whether he will regret pushing himself too hard too soon.

So watch closely. Look for signs of pain. Pay attention for indications of discomfort.

Or, maybe, just listen for clues.

Ah, fudge!

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

Woods has painful first round at U.S. Open 06/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2008 4:24pm]
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