JERSEY CITY • Tiger Woods joked, after struggling to a four-over 75 in the first round at the Northern Trust in New Jersey on Thursday, that at least he had broken 80.
The score, which left him 13 strokes behind American leader Troy Merritt, was the latest indication that all is not well with the 15-time Major champion's surgically fused spine.
Woods had acknowledged his back was stiff on the eve of the first event of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup play-offs.
"It's still a little bit stiff, but that's just the way it's going to be," he said, after a round that bettered only three players in the 120-man field at Liberty National.
Merritt shot 62 to lead compatriot Dustin Johnson by one shot on a day when all the good scores came in the morning, before a breeze sprang up and made for a sterner test on the water-front course within sight of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
Nobody shot better in the afternoon than the 65 by Englishman Justin Rose. Irishman Shane Lowry, in his first start since winning the British Open, managed a 69 in the morning, a shot better than world No. 1 Brooks Koepka.
Woods, in contrast, could barely have made a worse start, four over after nine holes, before somewhat steadying the ship on the back nine.
"I didn't hit any good shots and didn't make any putts. Other than that it added up to a round that broke 80," he said.
"The driver felt fine but I just didn't feel sharp with anything else. My iron game, which is usually the strongest part of my game, was off... my distance control was off."
Since ending a decade-long Major drought by winning the Masters four months ago, Woods, 43, has barely played outside the Majors and has not impressed when he has competed.
Thursday's round captured his struggles. He generated enough club-head speed to outdrive the 26-year-old J.T. Poston, one of the players he was grouped with, by 53 yards on the par-four 17th. That was after he tried, and nearly succeeded, to drive the green on the 303-yard, par-four 16th.
But he could not will the nervy putts to drop, missing four within seven feet, including a three-footer for par at the par-four third hole.
He entered this week's event ranked 28th in the FedEx Cup rankings and is likely to miss the cut and fall out of the top 30.
That means he will go to next week's BMW Championship at Medinah needing to overtake rivals, merely to earn a chance at defending his title in the season-finale Tour Championship.
"I'm going to have to figure out a way to get this thing under par," he said.
While Woods looked a pale shadow of his former self, recent world No. 1 Johnson was near his best, particularly towards the end as he reeled off four straight birdies from his 14th hole.
Even Johnson's worst drive of the day, at the par-four seventh, turned out well.
"I actually hit it into the sixth fairway and it worked out fine and I ended up making birdie," he said.
Merritt "half-shanked" his opening tee shot, but sank a 10-footer to save par and ran in birdies at the next four holes.
"It's nice to see putts go in early, especially from a little bit of length," he said after a nine-birdie round. "It gives you confidence the rest of the day and they just kept going in."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES