Crowd gives Tiger's birdie run wings after initial stumble

Tiger Woods teeing off at the second hole in the first round of the Zozo Championship yesterday, with huge crowds trailing after him at the Narashino Country Club course. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Tiger Woods teeing off at the second hole in the first round of the Zozo Championship yesterday, with huge crowds trailing after him at the Narashino Country Club course. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CHIBA (Japan) • Tiger Woods got off to a near-kamikaze start at the inaugural Zozo Championship before roaring back with nine birdies in 15 holes to share the lead in Japan.

The American, three over after three holes, bounced back in stunning fashion with a back nine of 29 and a six-under round of 64 to top the leaderboard with US Open champion Gary Woodland.

"I certainly was not expecting to shoot six under par after that start," he admitted.

"It was ugly early and it was nice to be able to flip it. Now I'm in a position where we're going to have a long, long weekend of a lot of golf. Hopefully I can keep it going."

The American duo have a one-shot lead over home favourite Hideki Matsuyama at the Narashino Country Club in Chiba, some 80km outside Tokyo.

"I was excited that fans were calling out my name," said Matsuyama, who at 27th is the highest-ranked Japanese in the event. "We don't normally have such big crowds."

The sold-out crowd of 17,734 made a deafening roar when a two at the short seventh put Woods out on his own. "It was loud, it was very loud," he said. "The people here in Japan have come out and supported this event and it's been a lot of fun to play in front of them again."

Remarkably, his 64 was the lowest season-opening round of his long career and came as the 43-year-old chases an 82nd PGA Tour win to tie Sam Snead's mark.

His nine birdies were the most he has had in 18 holes since the first round of the 2013 Wolf Golf Championships-Mexico Championship.

"Hearing he finished at six (under) gave me chills," said another Japanese, Ryo Ishikawa, who shot a 68 and knew that Woods had been three over early on.

"We almost had as many fans in one day as we usually have in a full week. I think the PGA Tour players could tell by the atmosphere how much the Japanese golf fans were looking forward to this moment.

"It was fresh and very exciting."

Woods started his day at the 10th, which was lined by crowds more than 10-deep, and suffered three straight bogeys.

  • FAIRWAYS HIT (OF 13)

    3

    GREENS IN REGULATION

    15

    PUTTS

    27

The Masters champion steadied himself with a par at the 13th before turning his round on its head with three birdies in a row. His fourth gain in five holes at the 18th saw him turn for home in one-under 35, with only two pars on his card.

By now he was firmly in the groove and three more birdies from the third, his 12th hole, took him to a share of the lead at four under with Matsuyama and Woodland.

Woodland, who won his first Major at Pebble Beach in June, never looked troubled in a blemish-free round with six birdies.

The world No. 18 has an added incentive to do well after being 10th in the standings and failing to earn one of the eight automatic Presidents Cup spots. He is on the shortlist for one of the four captain's picks Woods will make at the end of next week to complete his 12-man line-up to face the Internationals in Australia in December.

"He knows how much I want to be on that team," Woodland said. "I've talked to him about it. I'll just go out and play well and everything will take care of itself."

The Zozo Championship offers a US$9.75 million (S$13.3 million) prize pot as the middle leg of the Tour's new megabucks Asian swing. It began last week at the US$9.75 million CJ Cup in South Korea, won by Justin Thomas, and concludes at next week's US$10.25 million WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

On the sidelines of the Japan event, commissioner Jay Monahan has revealed that the PGA Tour is ready to roll the dice and unveil gambling at tournaments from next year to tap into new audiences.

"It's all about engagement," he said, with the primary aims being to attract new fans and prolong interest over a tournament day, which can stretch to 12 hours or more.

Gambling products were being developed in an international partnership with IMG Arena, specialists in sports and the betting industry, with integrity the top priority.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2019, with the headline 'Crowd gives Tiger's birdie run wings after initial stumble'. Print Edition | Subscribe