Prize fight between Tiger and Phil ends without many punches

Eric Adelson

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Remember March?

Remember when Tiger Woods boxed out college hoops by nearly winning the Valspar and then contending at the Arnold Palmer? Remember how the Masters was coming up and anything seemed possible?

March Madness has given way to the Month of Meh.

There’s still very much a weekly hope that Woods can sashay his way onto a leaderboard at a major or a big tournament, but the reality is harder to digest: He hasn’t been the putter he used to be, and that’s lethal no matter the size of your heart or your gallery.

A throng of folks turned out to watch Woods v. Phil Mickelson on a glorious Thursday afternoon at The Players Championship here – golf’s so-called “fifth major” – and the pre-round hype was so great that odds were laid on who would win. (Phil got a slight nod.) Parking passes for Friday and Saturday were gone by the time the group teed off, leaving the PGA Tour to advise fans to take an Uber, a bike, or even a golf cart to the course. Woods’ comeback has been a cup of strong coffee for this tour, and for the sports world altogether, but the second cup doesn’t seem to jolt the way that first one does. Most fans here got kind of bummed early. Woods scuffled to an even-par 72, while Mickelson carded a forgettable 7-over 79, after dropping one in the drink on the iconic 17th.

All eyes were on Tiger Woods Thursday at The Players Championship. (REUTERS)

The leaders aren’t out of orbit at 6-under, but don’t cancel your Mother’s Day plans – especially if the putts don’t start to drop.

“That used to be his thing,” one patron said as Woods wandered away from the third hole after a missed 5-footer for par.

“His thing” used to be forcing opponents to tap out mentally with those 10-feet-and-under putts, which were as sure as tap-ins for Tiger at the height of his career. Now? It’s anyone’s guess whether Woods is putting well on any given day, and that means he can’t scare anyone into mistakes.

“Make Tiger Great Again” proclaimed one T-shirt along the ropeline Thursday. It’ll be tough to do without a return to short-game dominance. He listed to a tie for 55th last week, and now he’s got work to do to contend here. His best hole by far came on No. 9, when he vaporized a 349-yard drive and followed it with a 245-yard approach. But the crucial stroke came next, as he dropped an 18-footer from the fringe for an eagle. That morphed a rough round into something salvageable. But even after that no-putt ninth, he still had 16 putts overall for the front. That’s just middling.

On the back, he threatened to charge but nothing more. The dagger came on 15, when he had less than 6 feet for a par save and slammed it nearly 10 feet. Bogey.

“Seemed like the golf course could have been had today,” he said afterward.

It’s hard to know what to expect for Woods after his early season sizzle. In one sense, any rounds are a bonus after back surgery, rehab and his scary DUI arrest last year. But in another sense, it’s impossible to watch him and not see the potential for a more consistent reemergence. He still has that spark; this is no retirement tour.

The consolation was beating his de facto match play foe, Mickelson, who came apart near the end. Lefty will fight to make the cut on Friday. Woods still has that puncher’s chance, which is all anyone really needs to come out to the course and watch. One concession worker hustled out to the 16th fairway as the sun set on the course, just to get a glimpse of Tiger. Woods slammed an approach shot long and low to the green in the distance, and the worker was more than satisfied. She turned and jogged back to her job, giggling like a girl who had cut school.

Shooting par won’t stay in anyone’s memory for long, but moments like that one will last.

Phil Mickelson, left, and Tiger Woods shake hands after the first round of the Players Championship golf tournament Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP)

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