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Ben Frederickson is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A scent of hamburger dominated the smoke wafting from a nearby food tent toward Bellerive’s No. 10 tee as golf’s biggest enigma was introduced at the 100th PGA Championship.

Eleven shots later, Tiger Woods looked cooked.

His first drive found the long, deep rough that is going to be critical to avoid this weekend. His second shot resembled a wounded bird, fluttering a few feet off the ground and landing just 65 yards away, with 162 more to go. Woods eventually made it to the “chewed up” greens that frustrated him all day, and then he left a putt short. Bogey.

Things were about to get worse.

Woods sent another first shot into the rough on his second hole. And when he tried to lift the ball over the little pond to the right of the green at No. 11, he wound up bouncing it off a stone wall and into the water. Penalty. Another missed putt. Double bogey.

Woods had been playing better as of late. His performance in the British Open was encouraging. But two holes in Thursday, he was in big trouble. The 42-year-old four-time PGA champion was sweating so much he changed shirts. He pulled his hat from his head, revealing a bald spot that looked bigger in person. As he entered his third tee box, and the cameras flashed so fast it sounded like shuffling cards, a Southwest Airlines flight buzzed high overhead.

It felt like a commercial.

Did Woods want to get away?

The crowd that gathered in the building heat to watch him — watch him win, watch him fail, watch him just to be able to say they got the chance — started to murmur from outside the ropes.

The old prizefighter St. Louis had flocked to see was going down in the first round.

“There are so many wonderful players,” a fan bemoaned to the group following Woods, “who cares about Tiger?”

Judging by the crowd, we still do.

His personal life has warts and his body and game have been eroded by injury and age, but there will never be another like Tiger. There is no need to apologize for wanting to see an all-time great who forever changed his genre, even if he’s beyond his prime. I don’t regret seeing an aged Chuck Berry fumble through riffs in the Duck Room, because it was better than never hearing him play. I won’t apologize for wanting to follow Woods when given the chance. The football Hall of Famer who sweated it out alongside us Thursday agreed.

Yes, that was Aeneas Williams in his cap from Canton trailing Woods closely from inside the ropes. The former Rams defensive back has pulled for Tiger since Williams was a student at Southern University in Louisiana.

“One of my good friends, Marcus Williams, he was one of the first African-Americans on a golf scholarship,” Aeneas explained as we walked. “We didn’t know anybody playing golf. He wound up running camps for Tiger. To see Tiger come along and play, to bring diversity to the PGA, is great. The whole country is about second chances. To see him back out, and hitting, hopefully he will win another tournament.”

Tiger Woods’ father, Earl, taught him golf. Aeneas Williams taught his son, Lazarus, football. They came together Thursday, and it was hard to tell who was more excited, the Hall of Famer or the 17-year-old SLUH football player. That’s the power of Woods.

Woods has changed swings, caddies, sponsors, putters. And he himself has changed. His sore muscles and sketchy back bark for ice baths. What once seemed to come easy now looks like work, and it has for a while. While his media interviews have mellowed and matured, some who have documented his swings since his teens believe he will never catch this comeback he’s chasing.

But on Thursday, he turned no chance into some chance.

“Just hung in there,” Woods said after he turned his start of bogey and double bogey into an even-par round of 70.

Woods’ play after his first two holes Thursday resembled the band of athletic tape wrapped, fittingly, around his middle finger. It was ragged. But it got the job done. And it sent a message.

He’s not dead yet.

Woods stopped the bleeding with a birdie on his third hole. Three pars followed. A backslide bogey on No. 16 was countered with a birdie on No. 18, when Woods turned his 7-iron into a magic wand. Two more birdies — and zero bogeys — followed after Woods reached the front nine, where his curses and stomps were replaced by calm waves to his supporters.

The hole that defined his day came before the turn. On Bellerive’s 15th, Woods pulled a tee shot into the crowd, prompting a volunteer manning the ropes to blurt out, “worst shot I’ve seen all day.” Woods’ attempt to rip his next shot out of the woods left him ... right back in the woods. But this time he was just 69 yards away from the pin. Once again surrounded by a herd of onlookers armed with recording cell phones, Woods somehow deposited his ball less than six feet from the hole, then sank the putt.

It was likely the highest degree of difficulty possible for a par.

“That wasn’t very good, was it?” Woods said with a laugh.

It looked decent after his day ended.

Tiger’s alive, and no one who watched his performance Thursday wished they hadn’t.


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