Tiger Woods won the battle Thursday against two hotshot youngsters in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard. He’s got a long way to go to win the weeklong skirmish that decides who claims the trophy.
A disappointing bogey on the final hole left Woods with a 1-over 73 in his first round at Bay Hill’s Championship Course since his 2009 victory. His playing partners, Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland, both 26 years old, encountered more problems. Each ended up at 5-over 77 while playing in front of a huge throng and amid major championship conditions complicated by gusting winds.
“It was just a tough, tough day,” said Woodland, winner of last week’s Transitions Championship.
Woods, 35, the six-time winner at Bay Hill, struggled with his driver for most of the opening round, hitting just four of 14 fairways. Somehow kept himself in the tournament. He’s seven shots behind leader Spencer Levin, but only four back of the next best scores.
“I think even par to under par would have been a good score this afternoon,” said Woods, who hadn’t shot over par in the first round here since 1999 and saw an eight-round streak of sub-par scoring at Bay Hill end. “Spencer obviously played well. But most of the low scores were this morning, so I'm still right there in the ballgame.”
Ballgames were a specialty of Woodland’s before he decided to pursue golf in college. He’s a big hitter from Topeka, Kansas, who now lives in Orlando. Johnson also hits it far, and he led the field in driving distance after the first round, averaging 308.9 yards. The pair were consistently ahead of Woods on driver holes, but all three men busted it in a bruising power exhibition.
On the greens, however, they all struggled.
“It was really hard to stay steady out there,” Woods said. “It's one thing to have it windy but it was actually gusty, and I had a hard time with the putter going back straight. And Dustin and Gary and I were talking about that most of the day. It's really hard to hit the ball the right speed.”
Woodland competed in the 2009 U.S. Open, but he had never played in front of crowds as large as he saw following his group Thursday. “The crowds were great, but the golf course played tough. I struggled and put a 77 on the board, unfortunately,” Woodland said. “None of us played very well, but there’s tomorrow to get it together.”
Having never played with Woods before was another unique experience for the newly minted TOUR winner.
“Tiger was great, just a great guy,” Woodland said. “Growing up, us young guys we all looked up to Tiger. He’s changed the game for us. It was nice to meet him. We talked a lot about sports. A lot about basketball. He’s a big Lakers fan. He talked to us all day. It was pretty cool. I enjoyed the energy out there.”