Woods’ woes, not helped by a cold putter, were a far cry from playing partner Brooks Koepka, the defending champion, who stormed to a seven-under 63 — one off the all-time major record set by Branden Grace in the Open at Royal Birkdale in 2017 — to set a searing pace.
Koepka has won three of his last seven majors and beat Woods to the PGA title last year before finishing second as the former world No.1 clinched his fifth Green Jacket last month.
While Koepka coasted, Woods’ round began in ignominious fashion with a double bogey courtesy of short-game issues after starting at the 10th.
The 43-year-old steadied the ship and picked up a birdie on the 15th, his sixth, before another double bogey via the sand on the 17th took him to the turn in three-over 38.
A brace of birdies starting the back nine and then an eagle three at the signature par-five fourth to get to one under gave the impression Woods had finally shaken off the rust after only playing nine holes in practice this week. “I got a little bit sick, so I decided to stay home,” he later told reporters.
But the world No.6, who still has to manage his back after spinal fusion surgery in April 2017, dropped a shot at the fifth and two more at the seventh and eighth, his 16th and 17th, throwing his head back in annoyance as another makeable putt stayed out.
“It wasn’t as clean as I’d like to have it, for sure,” Woods, who won the US Open at Bethpage in 2002, told reporters after his round.
“Got it back under par for the day, and let a couple slip away with a couple bad putts and a couple mistakes at the end.”
He added: “I felt like it’s not that hard to make bogeys out here, but it’s hard to make birdies.”
‘Focus on me’
The powerful Koepka was on cruise control alongside the spluttering Woods, continuing where he left off on Long Island after winning the US Open at Shinnecock Hills last June.
Armed with a potent putter, he picked up three birdies on the front nine and three more coming home for a fuss-free round despite the clamor surrounding Woods.
“You know, it was great that Tiger won Augusta, but I mean, we’re at a new week now,” Koepka told a news conference after his round. “I’ve just got to go out there and focus on me.
“You know what you’re going to get when you play with him. I mean, obviously everybody in New York is going to be cheering for him, and it’s going to be loud, especially if he makes a putt. You’ve just got to keep battling and find a way to get through it.”
Get through it he did, and then some.
“That was one of the best rounds I’ve played probably as a professional. This golf course is brutal,” he added.
The third member of the star trio was Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who held off a charging Woods to win the Open at Carnoustie last year before seeing his hopes of repeating the feat at Augusta sink in the water of Rae’s Creek in front of the short 12th on the final day.
But Molinari also struggled to keep up with Koepka and matched Woods’ 72.
However, his illustrious Ryder Cup partner Tommy Fleetwood — the pair were nicknamed MoliWood in Paris — carded a three-under 67 to lead the chasing pack, just as he did behind the American at Shinnecock.