By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
KOHLER, Wis. -- That final birdie was big. Very big.
Granted, Tiger Woods' 71 in the first round of the PGA Championship left him back in the pack. But if he hadn't birdied the ninth hole, his 18th of the day, Woods would have left Whistling Straits in a very different frame of mind.
"I played too good not to shoot under par, and it would have been very disappointing and frustrating to end up at even par as well as I played today," Woods acknowledged.
Instead, the world No. 1 appeared relaxed as he patiently endured three different interview sessions after the round. The round had not been perfect, by any means, but it was certainly better than anything he'd shot in his last two tournaments.
This is a man who had shot a 75 in Sunday's final round of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational on the way to his worst performance as a pro, at 18 over, no less. And it came at a tournament Woods had won seven times previously, where he had a comfort zone that might have otherwise gotten him back on track.
But Woods had left Akron grim-faced that afternoon and headed immediately for Whistling Straits. Before his personal travails became tabloid fodder, many had expected Woods to come to Wisconsin possibly hunting the major title that would tie Jack Nicklaus, not to mention give him the calendar year Grand Slam.
Instead, Woods is looking for his first PGA TOUR win of the 2010 season and Thursday's 1-under tally was his first sub-par round in his last eight. The diachotomy between Sunday and Thursday was not lost on Woods.
"Welcome to golf," he said with a smile. "It is what it is. Guys shoot 59 and don't win. Fickle game."
Woods got untracked immediately Thursday, making birdie on his first two holes and three of the first four. The last time he had consecutive birdies to start a round was at last year's Buick Open, which he went on to win.
Woods gave one shot back on the 15th hole and another on the par-5 second. He parred the fifth hole despite dropping his driver out of his hands at the top of his swing as the ball veered well left. But he had missed the green at the seventh and fell back to even par after another bogey.
So make no mistake, the birdie at the ninth was big.
"To shoot something under par -- that was the goal today," Woods said. "I got off to a quick start and all of a sudden, I felt like I could shoot something in the 60s. Didn't quite happen. Lost a few shots out there but I made a nice birdie on 9, and finished under par for the day."
Woods, who was pleased with his ball flight as he hit eight of 14 fairways and 12 of 18 greens. His 28 putts left a little to be desired because he had a hard time getting the ball to the hole but he was seeing the line much better so all in all, there were lots more positives than in any round of late.
"I think overall, I felt like I had pretty good control of my trajectory, which was good, especially with the wind," Woods said. "I was able to flight the ball better than it I did last week. ...
"I hit good putts but my speed, what I was seeing, the greens looked faster than what they are rolling. It's hard to make yourself hit the ball a little bit harder, for me, anyways. I hit a lot of good putts right on my lines, and they were just a little bit lacking in speed."
Much of Woods' time on the range this week had been spent trying to keep his head more still during his swing. His caddy Steve Williams would hold a club next to Woods' head as he hit balls as reinforcement, and the work appears to be bearing fruit.
"Better. It feels better," Woods said. "... It's the same thing, something I've always tended to struggle with, and you know, it's how we are always taught as a junior, how I was taught as a junior growing up, how to hit the ball further, always move off the ball.
"But things have changed a little bit, technique has changed. It felt good to be a little bit more steady today. I felt like I was able to, as I said, drive the ball in this wind and it felt good."
Woods said he didn't feel any different walking to the first tee on Thursday than he did any round last week. He executed more to his extremely high standards, though, and gave himself a chance to turn a frustrating season around.
"(Last week was) just one week," Woods said. "That's the way it goes. I mean, everyone has bad weeks."
Even the No. 1 player in the world.