SAN FRANCISCO — A good bit of firepower stepped onto the 10th tee early Thursday morning at TPC Harding Park to begin the PGA Championship, but after Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy were introduced via microphone by the starter, they were met with silence.
This is the new normal in professional golf, and McIlroy himself said he has become accustomed to it, even though a few dozen people milled about and might have offered up … something.
“It’s still funny … ‘99, 2000, 2006, 2007 PGA Champion, Tiger Woods’ — and there’s nothing,” McIlroy said. “That’s pretty interesting. That’s definitely different.”
Welcome to the first major championship of the COVID-19 era, the first major to be played in 13 months — and Woods’ first opening-round score in the 60s at a major championship since the 2014 Open.
Five birdies and three bogeys meant a 2-under-par 68 and left Woods 3 shots back of Jason Day, a reasonably good start on a day that offered easier scoring conditions than expected and a break from the cold temperatures that can impact Woods’ back.
Putting a new version of the Scotty Cameron putter he has used for a majority of his career in his bag also helped.
“I’ve been messing around with this putter for the better part of over a year,” Woods said. “Rob [McNamara] and I have been talking about it. It’s difficult for me to bend over at times, and so practicing putting … I don’t spent the hours I used to. It wasn’t unusual for me to spend four, five, six hours putting per day. I certainly can’t log that with my back being fused.
“Most of the guys on the Champions Tour have gone to longer putters as they have gotten older, because it’s easier to not bend over. And so this putter is just a little bit longer and I’ve been able to spend a little bit more time putting.”
Woods, 44, took 28 putts and had several very good ones, including the 10-footer at the 10th for birdie to open the tournament, and then a 35-footer at the 13th to get to 2 under. He also made a key 10-footer for par at the 18th and had several excellent lag putts.
Two of the bogeys — at the 14th and second holes — were the result of missing the fairway off the tee. He hit just 7 of 14 fairways for the round, an issue he needs to get cleaned up.
“This golf course, you have to hit the ball in the fairway,” he said. “You get a ball in the rough, into the grain, there’s no chance you can get the ball to the green. I felt like I did a decent job of doing that, and the golf course is only going to get more difficult as the week goes on.”
The decision to change putters is a big one in Tiger’s world. He has rarely wavered from the Scotty Cameron Newport II putter that he first put in play in 1999 and used for the next 11 years. He won 14 of his 15 majors and some $94 million in prize money with that putter.
But he has switched at times. He went to a Nike model in 2010. In 2018, he used two different TaylorMade putters before switching back to the Cameron.
“There’s something familiar with my other one,” he said. “I’ve won a few events with it. But every now and again, it needs to benched and this was a good week for it.”
The score was Woods’ best opening round in a major championship in relation to par since he shot 67 at the 2012 Open at Royal Lytham.
It was just his fifth round since the PGA Tour resumed play in June and only his 13th in 2020. He is coming off a tie for 40th three weeks ago at the Memorial, where he shot scores of 71-76-71-76.
That led to considerable conjecture about Woods’ ability to be competitive despite so much time away.
“I thought anything today in the red was going to be good,” Woods said. “The way the forecast was, it was supposed to lift today and get little more windy. I felt if I shot something in the red, I would be right there because the conditions were going to be tough this afternoon. I was able to do it.”
Woods will play the second round with McIlroy, who shot 70, and No. 1-ranked Thomas, who shot 71, starting at 4:58 p.m. ET on Friday.