Friday, July 06, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Woods' first trip to West Virginia is wild, but so far not wonderful

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - His shot was heading left all the way. Tiger Woods, watching it hook toward the trees that lined the first fairway, made a plea to his ball.

"Cut!" he shouted.

That's a word he might hear whispered a lot today. He's got some work to do to make it to Saturday.

In his first PGA Tournament round ever in the state of West Virginia, Woods whiffed. The 14-time major champion never found his traction and struggled to a 1-over 71 on Thursday at The Greenbrier Classic, leaving him in a tie for 88th.

Only the top 70 scorers and ties after today will move on to play the weekend.

So much for enjoying all those amenities the resort has to offer.

"No, I'm going to practice," Woods said. "First I need to eat, then I need to practice."

Hundreds of fans followed Woods throughout his round, getting an up-close look at his steely concentration in the face of adversity.

They kept waiting for a magic "Tiger" moment that never arrived.

"He didn't do too good today," said Danny Frazier, a 28-year-old fan from Narrows who picked up the trail shortly after Woods started his round on the 10th hole at 8:10 a.m. "Not a whole lot of anything."

Woods looked like he might have something early, as he birdied two of his first three holes. But a double-bogey on No. 17 put him over par, and he wouldn't get back to red figures again.

Still, fans lined up 10-deep in some places to watch him perform alongside Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson. Whether Woods was on his game or not, spectators relished the opportunity to see a global superstar who ranks No. 2 all-time on the PGA Tour wins list.

"I think it's wonderful," said fan Erin Burton, who saw most of Woods' round and at one point watched him strike a shot from about 10 yards away. "I enjoyed watching him play. He's just a natural athlete. It's kind of like Michael Jordan, getting to watch him."

Roars for Tiger just sound different - even when they're coming infrequently. On No. 7, Hall of Famer and Greenbrier pro emeritus Tom Watson hit the pin on his approach shot, drawing rousing applause from an adoring crowd.

About a minute later, next door at No. 6, Woods made a putt to save par and stay at even.

The cheer was even louder than the one for Watson.

Sticking with the day's theme, though, that excitement didn't last. Woods hit his drive on No. 7 into the fairway bunker, overshot the green on his approach, chipped well past the hole and two-putted for a bogey that moved him back to 1-over.

Fittingly, that hole is named "Plateau."

Perhaps the uneven performance could have been expected. Woods' practice round on Tuesday got rained out, so his first opportunity to play the Old White Course came Wednesday in the pro-am. His unfamiliarity with the greens was his biggest undoing.

"More than anything, I didn't have the speed of these things," he said. "I was missing every putt high."

That was to be a point of emphasis during his Thursday afternoon practice with the hopes of a better effort today. Complicating matters, though, was that as Woods was practicing, much of the rest of the field was painting the leaderboard red.

Woods' score beat only 10 other golfers who teed off in the morning groups.

"The golf course is definitely a course you could tear apart today," Woods said. "The greens are firm but slow. Drive the ball in the fairway, and you're going to have a bunch of holes where it's going to be 9-iron or down [on the approach].

"The ball is flying. It's warm. We're slightly at altitude. So definitely a golf course where I think most of the guys are going to be shooting 2-, 3-under par or better."

Woods might need at least that to stick around for the weekend and avoid the fate Phil Mickelson suffered in his first trip here last year.

"That's why I wanted to get up here on Thursday and Friday," said 47-year-old golf fan Mike Burton, who was getting his first look at Woods. "You never know what's going to happen, whether he makes the cut or misses the cut. I didn't want to wait until Saturday or Sunday and maybe miss him."

So far, that's looking like a wise move.

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