Tiger Woods’ quest for PGA Tour history got off to an ideal start at the Memorial Tournament last night before Muirfield Village began to bite back on day one in Dublin, Ohio.
On a day that should have seen golf’s greatest exponents playing their opening rounds of The Open Championship at Royal St George’s, the world’s best instead teed off in the rescheduled Memorial, the tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus and boasting the strongest field ever assembled in a regular PGA Tour event.
Rory McIlroy led nine of the world’s top 10 into action in a line-up also featuring the still defending Open champion Shane Lowry and fellow Irishman Graeme McDowell but it was Woods who took centre stage, making his first competitive start since golf was shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Playing his first event since February’s Genesis Open in Los Angeles, Woods, 44, teed off in search of a PGA Tour record 83rd victory having matched Sam Snead’s mark last October at the ZOZO Championship in Japan.
Playing alongside world number one McIlroy and Brooks Koepka, Woods could not have asked for a better start in the tournament he has won five times as he birdied the first after sinking a 10-foot putt and quickly moved to two under par by sending his 107-yard approach iron to four feet at the par-four third.
Yet scoring was proving difficult on a course that played host to last weekend’s Workday Charity Open won after a play-off by Collin Morikawa. With faster and firmer greens than last week's tournament and rough that had been allowed to grow and thicken, Morikawa’s 72-hole score of 19 under par last Sunday was looking out of reach on day one.
The early clubhouse leader was indeed one of the earliest starters in American Brendan Steele, who carded a four-under 68 but Woods’s attempt to keep pace stalled as the breeze got stronger and a missed fairway on the par-four sixth and a missed green at the par-three eighth led to a bogey on each.
Both McIlroy and Lowry, who was playing in another marquee group with Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose, were having their own battles at Muirfield Village. McIlroy, who had linked up with long-term coach Michael Bannon for the first time since lockdown during his two-week break since a tie for 11th at the Travelers Championship last month, bogeyed the fourth after missing an eight-foot putt but got back in the groove with back-to-back birdies at six and seven.
With his world number one status potentially under threat this weekend, McIlroy gave a shot back to return to level par with a bogey at the ninth while Lowry’s opening effort was similarly up and down, or rather down then up. The Open champion bogeyed the first, then birdied the par-five seventh, only to bogey the par-three eighth to turn for home at one over.
Then came the rebound, Lowry launching a wonderful long iron to within six feet of the par-five 11th hole from 245 yards out to set up an eagle.
The birdie will have been disappointing given the missed first putt but it did not check Lowry’s progress, the Irishman dialling in his approach play to great effect once more at the 13th, this time from 117 yards to move to one under.
Woods was not the only golfer making hay on the first with a bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau rocketing his drive 423 yards on the way to birdie having begun his round at the 10th.
There had been another monster drive of 403 yards at the 17th but DeChambeau would end his opening round on one over par with fears that Nicklaus’s pride and joy at Muirfield Village having staved off the big dogs for another day at least.