IRVING, Texas, AP
Tiger Woods sailed his drive so far right that he had to dig through the brush just to find it. Then, a branch stabbed him in the back as he crouched to find his way out. A tree limb knocked his shot into the rough. He made double bogey.
Yes, one can expect a little rust after taking four weeks off.
But that was just one hole. The other 17 holes Thursday in the Byron Nelson Classic looked like Woods hadn’t been gone at all.
While Scott Verplank celebrated a return to his hometown by matching his career-low 62 for a two-stroke lead, Woods caused an even greater stir by simply returning to golf.
Playing for the first time since his historic victory in the Masters gave him a clean sweep of the major championships, Woods overcame his first double bogey in 117 holes with six birdies in a round of 66.
“I was really pleased with the way I hit it, and hopefully I can continue improving,” Woods said. “It took me a little while to get into it.”
He was on the right course to do that.
As usual, Cottonwood Valley played the role of pushover by producing 20 of the best 21 scores in the Nelson Classic despite blustery, hot winds that are typical of Texas. The exception was David Peoples, with a 66 on the TPC at Las Colinas.
Leading the Cottonwood charge was Dallas-born Verplank, who developed his game in windy weather. Masters runner-up David Duval had a 64 and was joined by Tim Herron and Chris Riley, who birdied his last three holes.
Verplank took only 23 putts in his round of 62, his best on the PGA Tour since a 10-under 62 in the second round of the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1990.
“When you go over there, you sure like to shoot a low score,” Verplank said. “It’s not that the golf course is that much easier to shoot a low score, but it’s not nearly as penalizing as the TPC golf course.”
Verplank’s big break came on No. 7, when he came up short of the flag and into a bunker, leaving little green between him and the hole. It looked like a sure bogey.
“One of the few bad shots I hit today,” Verplank said. “I was a little concerned whether or not I could even get it up-and-down, and I hit a nice shot and got lucky and it went in.”
After turning a likely bogey into an improbable birdie, Verplank was on his way. He holed two more birdie putts over 20 feet (6.10 meters), and hit a 6-iron on the par-3 17th to about 8 feet (2.44 meters) to wrap up his 62.
When he was finished, he came in for an interview and found two reporters in the room.
“Is this the big crowd we got here?” he said.
The crowd was with Woods, who gave reason to cheer with a 12-foot (3.66-meter) birdie putt that swirled into the cup on the first hole, and a 30-footer (9 meter) for birdie on No. 3 that had him poised for a big day — certainly better than his 73 in the first round last year after his post-Masters break from golf.
Except for one swing, it might have happened.
Not long after Woods hit his drive to the right on No. 8, a PGA Tour rules official drove by in a cart and issued a slow-play warning to Woods, Brent Geiberger and Jim Carter. Then came the really bad news.
Woods found his ball under some brush, an unplayable lie that cost him a one-stroke penalty drop. Worse yet, as Woods squatted to find his line through the limbs, he backed into a broken branch that stabbed into his back, causing him to wince in pain.
His shot clipped a branch and landed in the rough. Woods smacked his wedge on the cart path, hit a listless approach and muttered sarcastically, “Get in the bunker.” Alas, he hit the green, and two-putted from 30 feet (9.14 meters).
It was his first double bogey since hitting into the water on the island-green 17th in the second round of The Players Championship.
Within 15 minutes, the sour taste was out of his mouth. Woods hit a 6 iron into about 6 feet for birdie and the recovery process was under way.
“I felt pretty good in the way I played today — obviously, a lot better than I started out last year,” he said. “Usually, you come out with low expectations knowing the fact that generally you’re not going to always hit every putt where you’re looking. I was able to do that most of the day, which is definitely pretty good.”
It was an even better day for Verplank, who has a lot of history with this tournament.
As a kid in the mid-1970s, he used to carry the scoring signs when the tournament was played at Preston Trails. As his amateur career began to blossom, tournament host Byron Nelson helped with his game, and Verplank got to play a dozen or so rounds with him.
“I’m sure if I was out there carrying the sign, I was probably dumb enough to think I was going to be on the other side of that sign sometime,” he said.