Why Tiger Woods, after an opening 71, will likely be in the hunt this Sunday

Tiger Woods hits his second shot on the 15th hole at Muirfield Village Golf Club on Thursday.

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DUBLIN, Ohio — Tiger Woods played his first round of tournament golf on Thursday in five months. He played with two South Florida friends, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka. A supergroup. He was playing on a hilly course, at Muirfield Village Golf Club, on a warm, humid, blowy day. He shot a one-under-par 71 that puts him in a tie for 18th place and five shots behind the first-round leader, Tony Finau.

If Tiger is not contending by Sunday afternoon, this reporter will eat his package of Tour-issued Zehn-X sanitizing wipes. (Ten towelettes.)

In other supergroup news and notes, McIlroy shot 70 and Koepka shot level-par 72. McIlroy and Koepka, winners of eight major championships between them, play ready golf as well as anybody in the game today. After a poor tee shot on the par-5 5th, McIlroy was forced to lay up. He hit his second, walked 200 yards ahead of his playing partners and prepared to play his third. The term for this is ready golf, and it’s a rare thing on Tour. You know why you almost never hear Koepka and his caddie, Ricky Elliott, get picked up by boom mics? Because Koepka is seldom unsure of what to do. He, like Rory, is ready to go. It’s a beautiful thing.

Tiger is more difficult to classify. In 2000, when he was playing golf likely better than it’s ever been played, he wasn’t fast, but he was decisive. He knew what he wanted to do and how he would do it. He was under the tutelage of Butch Harmon in that period. In subsequent years, under Hank Haney and Sean Foley, Tiger often looked actually unsure of what kind of swing he wanted to make, even in weeks when he was contending and winning.

Which was one of the most striking things about his round on Thursday. Woods, who doesn’t have a formal coach now but talks about the swing with his friend and employee Rob McNamara, made one confident swing after another on Thursday. He looked like he was playing a casual round at home, and that’s not a comment on playing golf without a gallery. At home, at Medalist, he plays in a cart on a flat course and gets around in under three hours. His first tournament round in this age of the pandemic took well over five hours. The supergroup was waiting on one tee after another and sometimes in the fairway, too. If Tiger had even a soupcon of irritation it was not evident. It’s amazing, in golf, when golfers are swinging well, the whole mood lifts.

Some 71s are better than others.

“He does the same thing every single time,” McIlroy said when their workday was over. “He had most things under control today. I’ve always liked playing with him because of that rhythm.”

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In comparative terms, the supergroup had a massive gallery. The threesome in front of the Woods group, featuring two British Open winners and one U.S. Open winner — Phil Mickelson, Shane Lowry and Justin Rose — may have had a half-dozen spectators. (Paying fans, you likely know, have not been permitted at PGA Tour events since play resumed six weeks ago at the Colonial.) The supergroup might have had 40 people in its wake, including McNamara, club officials and tournament officials and a half-dozen reporters. It was weird (slash fun) to watch Tiger and Co. play 18 holes without ever having to kneel, get yelled at, be breathed upon.

“The energy wasn’t the same without the fans,” Woods said. “That certainly was noticeable, the most different. But there were still a lot of moving parts with camera crews.” Camera crews are moving more because the networks — CBS this week — are doing their camerawork not from traditional camera stands but from the ground.

Without any grandstands or blimp shots, this Thursday of golf felt like a ground game. On the right side of the 17th hole, there is a series of large, modern homes, in big lots, with shared backyards that border the course. In a particular American summertime ritual, there were kids running from one backyard to another to keep pace with Woods as he marched down the fairway. They called out to the defending Masters champion. They expressed their love for him in no uncertain terms. (“We love you, Tiger.”) Tiger raised his right hand to mid-chest and marched on his way to a par.

Woods is 44, and he still commands attention, as he has for the past 25 years, in ways few other golfers do. As Woods played off the 10th tee, Zach Johnson, on his way to the 1st tee, stopped to take a look at Tiger’s tee shot. Another confident rip. He and McIlroy largely were side-by-side through the day, with Koepka maybe 10 or 20 yards longer at times.

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Tiger looked slender, not at all bulked up. His shirt was loose. He chatted genially with McIlroy on some of the tees — less so with Koepka, who isn’t much for chit-chat. He was chewing gum, as he has done for a while now, but much less aggressively than he was in the final round of last year’s Masters. He chatted with his caddie, Joe LaCava, only occasionally. Joe looked tanned, rested and ready, too.

Woods will miss the fans before this week is over, as he looks to win his 83rd PGA Tour event, which would make him the solo leader in that most celebrated category. Part of his greatness has been, to use a phrase of his father’s, to let his legend grow. All the putts he holed, the chips he holed, the irons he stiffed, the tee shots he smashed. There are thousands of them. Part of that greatness comes from his own ability and desire, of course. But part of it comes from crowd energy, the desire to show the people, kneeling and slithering and on ladders and trees, what he could do. That is fan energy. That can mean a shot on Sunday. That can make a difference between winning and not.

But when Tiger Woods swings well, he contends. That’s almost a given. Tiger Woods is swinging well. He’s walking well. He’s waving to his peeps. He’s back playing golf again.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@golf.com.

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.