LEMONT, Ill. – At this point in a strange season, slow starts should be nothing new to Tiger Woods.
This one came at a bad time.
The BMW Championship is the most pivotal playoff event, with the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings advancing to the Tour Championship in Atlanta to compete for the $10 million bonus. Woods is No. 51 in the standings and probably needs to finish around fifth.
He sure dug himself quite a hole.
Matt Kuchar had his best start of the year with a 7-under 64. Woods had his worst start at Cog Hill in five years.
He opened with a double bogey. He missed a 3-foot birdie putt at the turn. He squandered a birdie chance on another par 5 by hitting an iron into the trees. And he finished with a bogey from the bunker on the 18th hole, a sand shot so tough he was trying to make sure it didn't go across the green and into the water.
"I just didn't have much today," Woods said.
It wasn't much of a score — not considering it was Cog Hill, a course where Woods has won five times and had 11 consecutive rounds in the 60s until Thursday. Woods wound up with a 2-over 73 and was nine shots behind in a tie for 45th.
Stranger still was the way he looked at his position.
Woods looked at the leaderboard long enough while signing his card that he realized the immediate goal might not be who's leading the tournament, but where he needs to finish to get enough FedEx Cup points to go to the Tour Championship.
"As of right now, I'm only five shots back of that spot," he said. "That's not bad. Guys aren't going low at this place because the greens aren't good enough to go low. Obviously, there's a couple of players that have played well today. But overall, guys just aren't tearing the place apart."
Phil Mickelson wouldn't mind doing that. Unfortunately for him, Rees Jones beat him to it.
Lefty has never been a fan of Cog Hill since Jones revamped the place, just like he didn't care for the work Jones did at Torrey Pines, where Mickelson is a three-time winner before the changes.
He skipped the tournament in 2007. He thought about skipping this year, and arranged to swap out his pro-am round with a corporate function. Mickelson spent Wednesday at Butler National and raved about it.
Mickelson had a pair of birdies through four holes, but it all came undone on the back nine, and he finished with a bogey on the par-5 ninth that put him at 72. He was asked if it was harder to play a course for which he has little affection.
"Yes," he replied.
This isn't the same course where Kuchar won the 1997 U.S. Amateur, although the sweet memories remain. Kuchar is No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings, already assured of going to East Lake with as good a chance as anyone to win the big bonus.
He got his round going with a laser shot to 10 feet for eagle on the 15th, and he finished strong with an 18-foot birdie. Already a winner in the playoffs, at The Barclays two weeks ago, there's really not much else for him to say.
Besides, he couldn't.
Kuchar has laryngitis and begged off media interviews to keep it from getting worse. But he doesn't need a voice to smile, and there was plenty of reason for that on a relatively calm morning in the Chicago suburbs.
It was the second-best start of his career, and the 21st time in 23 events this year that he broke par in the opening round.
"Just keep playing," Kuchar said to one question he felt good enough to answer. "I was driving it well. I was actually doing everything well. It felt very good. Last week was a little bit suspect, and this week I kind of figured some stuff out."
He was one shot ahead of Ryan Moore, who figured out how to make birdies when he least expected it.
Dressed in a black sweater and white golf shirt, with a tie hung loosely around his neck, Moore was 1 over for the round and in a bunker on the 11th. He holed that out for birdie, hit 3-iron to 5 feet for birdie, and after a par, finished with five straight birdies.
"I certainly wasn't expecting to do that," Moore said. "I hit a horrible tee shot on 11 with an even worse lay-up, and then I hit a terrible shot from there into a bunker and then holed out. I don't know. Just got a little positive momentum going from there."
Ian Poulter was in third place at 66, and he had to find momentum quickly.
He hit his opening tee shot to the right on the 10th hole, put his approach into a front bunker and then caught that clean and sent it over the green. He missed a 4-foot putt and took double bogey, although it helped that it's about a 250-yard walk to the next tee.
"Nice first round," he said. "Not a very nice first hole, mind you."
Not much about it was nice for Woods, whose first-round scoring average is more than two strokes higher than it was a year ago at the same tournaments. There is no cut at the BMW Championship, so he at least has three days to figure it out.