January 25, 2012

Tiger off to promising start in Abu Dhabi

Tiger Woods started his 2012 season in promising fashion Thursday by shooting a bogey-free, 2-under-par 70 in the first round of the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at calm and sunny Abu Dhabi Golf Club in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Sporting a new goatee, the recently-turned 36-year-old Woods looked very solid with his golf swing, especially off the tee, hitting 10 of 14 fairways. And while he wasn’t as sharp with his short irons, Woods hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation, including nine-straight on his final nine holes, and mostly avoided the tall, nasty rough surrounding the course.

While Woods managed only two birdies and three-putted once, finishing with 34 putts on the day, he stroked many nice lag putts and had a handful of near-miss birdies.

His score on the 7,600-yard course was three-off the early lead set by playing partner Rory McIlroy, and Robert Karlsson.

Paired with top-ranked Luke Donald, and the third-ranked McIlroy — the latter paired together for the first time in an official tournament — the duo chatted throughout the round and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. On Tuesday, they played a nine-hole practice round together.

Early back-nine starters, the trio teed off in cool conditions, with Woods making par at the par-5 10th hole. At the par-4 11th, he made his first birdie of 2012.

Woods followed with a par at the par-3 12th, then missed a good birdie chance at the par-4 13th, failing to convert from about eight feet right of the hole. At the 490-yard, par-4 14th, Woods drove into the left fairway bunker, then reached the green from 201 yards with a 6-iron and did well to two-putt from about 50 feet left of the cup.

A nice tee shot at the 182-yard, par-3 15th left Woods 15 feet left of the hole. The birdie putt looked true but burned the left edge, a frustrated Woods settling for par. Tiger pounded a 323-yard drive at the 475-yard, par-4 16th, leaving only 130 yards to the pin. However, his approach finished 30 feet below the cup and he two-putted for par.

At the 483-yard, par-4 17th, Woods ripped another driver down the fairway and had 141 yards remaining to the pin. His second shot wound up 18 feet left of the hole and he two-putted for par.

Woods struck another solid driver at the 567-yard, par-5 18th and reached the front of the green in two with a fairway wood. Facing a 60-foot, uphill eagle putt, his first putt slid three feet left of the hole and he lipped out his short birdie attempt, departing with a disappointing par and first nine score of 1-under 35.

Moving to the front nine, Woods found the fairway with a 3-wood at the 405-yard, par-4 first hole and hit the bottom of the flagstick with his approach shot from 153 yards, getting an unlucky carom, the ball winding up 20 feet to the right. A frustrated Woods just missed the birdie putt.

The 600-yard, par-5 second hole proved equally frustrating. After laying up perfectly in two, Woods punched a sand wedge nine feet below the cup and left his birdie attempt two inches short.

He had another near-miss at the 454-yard, par-4 third, where he hit a 9-iron 24-feet left of the cup and left his birdie bid dead-center, but just short of the hole. Tired of the close calls, Woods almost aced the 178-yard, downhill, par-3 fourth hole, the ball flirting with the right side of the cup and stopping three feet past. Woods converted for his second birdie of the round.

At the 469-yard, par-4 fifth hole, Woods hit a driver into the right fairway bunker and was left with 168 yards to the pin. He blasted his second shot 45 feet long and left of the hole and left his speedy, downhill birdie putt six feet short. Displaying perhaps his best stroke of the day, Woods poured the par-saving putt into the middle of the cup to avoid his first bogey.

Following two putt pars at No.6 and 7, Woods came up just short of the green in two at the 597-yard, par-5 eighth hole. With a good angle to the back-right pin, his third shot came up nearly 40 feet below the hole and he two-putted for par.

Woods also hit the fairway and green in regulation at the 456-yard, par-4 ninth hole, narrowly missing a 25-foot birdie try, to conclude the side in 1-under 35.

All in all, a satisfying performance considering it was his first competition since winning the Chevron World Challenge in Thousand Oaks, Calif. in early December, and his first visit to Abu Dhabi.

Woods has had great success in European Tour events. In 103 previous starts, including major championships and World Golf Championships, he has 37 wins and 78 Top 10 finishes. Woods, Donald and McIlroy are late front-nine starters Friday. They are scheduled to tee off at 3:05 a.m. ET.