Tiger’s back, at least the Tiger who can dominate Doral. Bubba has been sick, but he’s back. Graeme, who took a few months off earlier this year while moving to Orlando, is back. Maybe Sergio’s back. Rory? He’s not back.
The wind didn’t make it back to the TPC Blue Monster at Doral for Thursday’s first round of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship as it had for Wednesday’s practice rounds. That left the birdie buffet open, and the big dogs ate.
Three-time winner at Doral Tiger Woods; 2012 Masters winner and Cadillac Championship runner-up Bubba Watson; Sergio Garcia; Graeme McDowell; and Freddie Jacobson all shot 6-under-par 66 to tie for the lead. Hunter Mahan, Peter Hanson, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker are all one shot back.
“This is probably the easiest wind we’ll have,” Woods said. “Some of the hardest holes were playing downwind, and it really wasn’t blowing that hard most of the day.”
McDowell said as far as difficulty, “Generally, it was probably a six out of 10. I wouldn’t have called it easy, and I wouldn’t have called it tough. It was kind of somewhere right in the middle. [Wednesday’s] practice round was probably a 9 1/2. It was tough.”
Also, that amorphous quality of group momentum helped. Of the aforementioned nine players, only Woods and Jacobson didn’t have one of the other nine in his threesome.
Woods, in fact, got rolling with a trio of birdies as Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy crashed on No. 18. Donald recovered to end the day with a 2-under 70, and McIlroy looked fortunate to escape the day with a 1-over 73.
Starting on No. 10, Woods birdied two of his first three holes, then followed with two bogeys, one on a putt that swirled around the hole and out on No. 13. He said he hit only one bad shot on those holes, so he thought he was playing well. Birdies on Nos. 16 and 18 got him to 2-under after nine holes. And he birdied five holes on his back nine.
The past two years at Doral, as at many courses, Woods missed putts he dropped mechanically during his run of wins here. On Thursday, looked like a return to those times. Woods said he recently got putting help from Stricker and likes his short game.
“My short game is certainly much better since last year, and that’s just because the things that I’ve been working on in my long game are finally starting to solidify,” Woods said. “I feel comfortable with it. I’m able to now hit the shots I want with the trajectories and the shape, and I don’t get any surprises on distances. I came from my old swing to now. It’s a pretty drastic change. It took a little bit of time.”
For fans of cliffhanger golf, the Stricker, Watson and Mickelson trio promised wild shots and wild shot-making, at least from the latter two.
“I was playing with two other guys and their caddies who I knew well,” Watson said. “So we’re just out there talking about random stuff and enjoying the day, and then the weather was perfect. When you’re playing with two greats like Steve Stricker and Phil Mickelson, it steps my game up. Or, I need to step up or I’m going to be embarrassed.”
Peter Hanson, in a group with Mahan and Dustin Johnson trading birdies early, said, “It always helps to see good golf.”
Johnson actually got to 7-under with a birdie on
No. 16 moments after the nearby electronic leaderboard showed Woods had tied he and Jacobson at 6-under. Johnson went to the par-4, 419-yard 17th with a good shot at finishing at 8-under. Especially since the lack of wind took some of the sting out of No. 18.
Three shots later, Johnson was tumbling down the board. His chip from the front bunker sailed far beyond the green and rolled down the hill most of the way to the 18th tee box. Playing from just off the steps of the broadcast tower, Johnson left himself a 26-foot bogey putt. A double bogey there and a bogey on No. 18 took him from sole possession of the lead to the pack of six in 10th at 4-under.
Jacobson eagled the par-5, 560-yard No. 8, then eagled the par-5, 551-yard 10th to vault himself into a tie for the lead.
“I was hitting 5-wood coming into the green, and both holes I was left like 13 feet from the hole,” Jacobson said.
After the second eagle, Jacobson made only one birdie on the back nine. Perhaps he started to get worn down. This is his sixth consecutive week in a tournament.
“I’m running on fumes a little bit at the moment and got a bit of a head cold going,” Jacobson said.