For Tiger at Riviera, a great start and deflating finish

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — He was 2-under-par after one hole. An eagle 3 to open, an auspicious beginning. But you on know the sporting cliché. It’s not so much how you start, it’s how you finish.

In round one on Thursday of the Genesis Invitational, the tournament he in effect is hosting, for Tiger Woods the finish was, well, inauspicious.

Two-under on the first hole, the enticing par-5 that tees off in front of the 1920s Spanish-style clubhouse on a hill above a coastal canyon. And then a struggle to come in with a 2-under 69. Deflating. Disappointing.

“I got off to a good start on the front nine,” said Woods, “but just didn’t hit many good shots on the back nine.

“I made a couple of loose swings and made a couple good saves for pars but just wasn’t able to get any birdies on the back nine.”

What he made were bogies at 12 and 18 — any golfer from pro to hacker hates a bogey on the final hole — and thus shot 31-38–69, at par 35-36 Riviera Country Club, a course he has played more times as a pro than any other, 13, without a victory.

He was five shots behind Matt Kuchar’s 64 on a scoreboard that included the world’s No. 1, Rory McIlroy, and Patrick Reed both at 68. It’s difficult to help put on and promote a tournament, and then expect to play well in the same tournament.

Still, 3-under after hitting only three shots, including the 24-foot, 8-inch eagle putt. We were thinking, this would be the breakthrough year. This would be Tiger’s 83rd Tour victory, snapping the tie with Sam Snead. Oops, slow down a moment.

Woods still can win it. But he not only has to overtake Kuchar, the guy who semi-stiffed his caddy a year and a half ago at a tournament in Mexico — yes, apologies and big money finally were provided — but McIlroy, Jason Day and, at 70, Brooks Koepka.

“Hopefully,” said Woods, “we’ll have a little bit smoother greens (Friday) out there on the golf course.”

Woods, who grew up about 25-30 miles away in Orange County and started out playing as a tyke, knows that the poa annua grass greens on coastal California coastal courses — Riviera, Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines among them — are jumpy in winter.

He’s won at the other two locations in January and February, the Farmers and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

“Hopefully,” said Tiger, “I can hit it as good as I did on the front nine to give myself a number for the entire 18 holes.”

The number someone referenced was the 24-foot, 8-inch eagle putt on the first. The late Kobe Bryant wore both those numbers, and Tiger, a longtime Lakers fan, is among the many athletes to offer more than just condolences over Bryant and his eldest daughter dying in the helicopter crash.

“No matter what we do,” said Woods, “I think for a while we’re always going to remember Kobe. I didn’t know about the putt being that long. Ironic having those numbers, and then (hole) No. 8 — happened to hit one in there close and had a nice little kickback for a birdie.”

The last one in the round for Woods.

“I was trying to piece it together,” Tiger explained of his game and the closing holes, “and I did a good job of figuring how to make solid contact and get the ball headed in the right direction.”

Always a challenge for any golfer. And if you want to score, a necessity. Yet, even for one of the best of all time, not always guaranteed.

The game comes and goes, although over a career for a Tiger or Rory, Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer, it usually doesn’t go far.

“Able to get off with a quick 3,” Woods said, “a lot of good shots on the front nine.”

And a lot of unrewarding ones after that.

“Well, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to practice,” Woods said. “I’ve been a little bit busy.”

That’s understood.