Woods stumbles in comeback start

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Tiger Woods’ comeback from a spell on the sidelines will not have come as good news to Fred Couples.

Tiger Woods’ comeback from a two-month spell on the sidelines will hardly have helped boost US Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples’ confidence in his controversial wild card pick.

The long-time former World No 1 could only post a disappointing 2-over 73 in his much-heralded comeback in Thursday’s first round of the Frys.com Open and will be heading into Friday’s second round of this US PGA Tour’s Fall Series tournament way down in 86th place.

This in an event led after the first round by a PGA Tour rookie, Brenden Steele and three journeyman golfers, Briny Baird, Garret Willis and Matt Bettencourt.

The four Americans upstaged Woods and the rest of the field by shooting 4-under 67s at the CordeValle golf resort in San Martin, Northern California, that put them just one shot clear on a crowded leaderboard of the six-strong group behind them on 68s.

The group included four Australians, Matt Jones, Steven Bowditch, Rod Pampling and Aron Price, an American, Troy Matteson, and a Canadian, Chris Baryla.

Three-time major winner Ernie Els was a further shot back in the even larger 14-strong group that included last week’s Las Vegas winner Kevin Na.

Most of talk of the day around the course, however, concerned Woods, and in a good many cases questions were being asked about Couple’s decision to give one of his two Presidents Cup wild cards to Woods sight unseen and based entirely on Woods heroics of the past.

Woods’ tournament game was understandably overall rusty, especially on the greens, in difficult, mainly wet and cold conditions.

In the meantime, Steele, who clinched his maiden PGA Tour title at the Texas Open in April and is considered to be among the best of this year’s crop of rookies, covered the back nine in a blistering five-under 31 to join Baird, Willis and Bettencourt at the top of the leaderboard on a saturated course playing exceptionally long.

“It was a little cold and rainy this morning, and the ball wasn’t carrying very far,” the 28-year-old Steele told the media after posting five birdies as against just one bogey.

“It was a little tough to get going early on but, once I made the turn, things started to click. I caught some nice weather on the back nine.”

Baird, who has yet to win on the PGA Tour after 12 full seasons, was delighted to be sharing the lead after nailing a 20-foot par putt at the last.

“That was nice,” the 39-year-old said with a smile. “You hate to end on a sour note. The conditions out there weren’t easy.

“Compared to last week (the Las Vegas Open), the ball is going nowhere,” Baird opined.

“If you normally hit an eight-iron 160 yards, it’s going 145 here. A huge difference.”

England’s World No 20, Paul Casey, the highest-ranked player in this winding-down Fall Series field, briefly held a share of the lead before dropping four shots in the last six holes to card a 70.

But Woods, who has not competed since he missed the cut at the PGA Championship in August and struggled badly with his putting on the way to an erratic 73 never looked like getting into contention and is going to have to up his game considerably just to make the cut this week and get in 72 much-needed holes.

“That’s probably one of the worst putting rounds I’ve ever had,” he confessed after needing 27 putts and making just nine greens in regulation.

“Whatever momentum I could have gotten by hitting good shots, I just missed putts.

“I am just playing to be competitive and to win a golf tournament,” said Woods, who is taking part in a Fall Series event for the first time ever at the urging of Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples.

“It’s not about (Presidents Cup) validation. I’m six (shots) back and I have to put in a good round tomorrow.”

After making an encouraging start under overcast skies with a birdie at the par-four first, Woods bogeyed the second and third to reach the turn in one-over 36.

But then he squandered a golden opportunity at the par-three 11th where his birdie putt from four feet slid past the right edge of the cup before he ran into more trouble at the par-five 12th.

As the rain got stronger, he double-bogeyed the hole after driving into the left rough, pulling his second shot into a hazard and then needing to take a penalty drop.

Though he birdied the par-five 15th after ending up just short of the green in two shots, he failed to make up any further ground over the closing stretch.

Conditions were difficult for scoring on this up-hill-and-down-dale par-71 layout which played much longer than its official 7,368 yards because of the wet conditions.

The average first-round score was 71.864 and former major winners Angel Cabrera, Steve Elkington and Rich Beem were among those who battled home a shot behind Woods on their way to matching 74s.

TOP 10 LEADERBORD

67 Brendan Steele (USA), Briny Baird (USA), Garrett Willis (USA), Matt Bettencourt (USA)
68 Troy Matteson (US), Matt Jones (Aus), Steven Bowditch (Aus), Rod Pampling (Aus), Aron Price (Aus), Chris Baryla (Can)

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