DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Tiger Woods walked cautiously from the driving range to the first tee, swung tentatively for the first few holes, got off to a slow start and never recovered during the opening round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday.
The result was his worst score in 29 rounds at Emirates Golf Club, a 5-over-par 77 that included no birdies, left him 12 strokes behind Sergio Garcia and almost assuredly will have him looking at plans to leave for home early.
Despite appearing to be uncomfortable, especially early on, Woods said there were no issues with his back.
"No, I wasn't in pain at all," he said. "I was just trying to hit shots and I wasn't doing a very good job. At the end I finally hit some good ones but the damage had already been done. On top of that, I could have hung in there, could have shot something near even par if I would have made some putts, but I made nothing."
It's true that Woods fared poorly on the greens, taking 33 putts for the round. His only putt of consequence was a 6-footer on the 18th green after he had hit his approach into the water.
Woods managed to hit 10 of 14 fairways and 11 of 18 greens. But he three-putted twice for bogey, didn't hit enough approach shots close to the hole -- and when he did, he missed.
"I probably left about 16 putts short," he said. "I just couldn't get the speed of these things, and consequently it added up to a pretty high number. ... I just could not hit the putts hard enough. I left every putt short. What I thought was down grain, downwind, would be quick downhill, and I still came up short. In the wind, uphill putts into the grain, I put a little more hinge on it trying to get a little more hit on it, and it still didn't work."
Woods said he might add some weight to the putter, but that is unlikely to matter as it relates to the 36-hole cut, which figures to be under par, or perhaps even -- meaning Woods would need at least a score of 67 during Friday's second round to potentially avoid a second straight missed cut. He has two more tournaments scheduled this month, the Genesis Open followed by the Honda Classic.
Starting on the back nine, Woods bogeyed two of the first three holes and looked tentative doing so, causing some concern that his surgically repaired back was giving him problems.
But this is the new normal for Woods, who moves around carefully, takes his time crouching to read putts and seemingly has difficulty getting loose for early-morning rounds.
That was the case last week at Torrey Pines and again on Thursday, where Woods has dug himself a hole and is looking at another weekend off in his second official tournament back after a 17-month layoff for multiple 2015 back surgeries.
He eventually started to loosen up and swing more freely, hitting several nice drives and iron shots, but couldn't get any putts to drop. And then there was an inexplicable error at the par-5 18th, where from 100 yards, Woods left his third-shot approach short and it rolled back into the water.
And when he made three more bogeys on the front side, he was near the bottom of the field at an event he has won twice and where he is receiving a hefty seven-figure appearance fee. Woods had a scoring average of 68.17 at Emirates Golf Club entering the day.
Despite the poor performance, it was no less special for Matthew Fitzpatrick, 22, who played with Woods for the first time. A three-time European Tour winner who played one year at Northwestern, Fitzpatrick shot 69.
"It was a tremendous experience," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm flattered to play with him but never imagined I'd beat him by 8 shots. It's only his second tournament back and anybody is going to be rusty after that much time off."
Masters champion Danny Willett was also in the group and shot 71. The threesome will play again Friday at 12:35 p.m. local time (3:35 a.m. ET), but strong winds and rain are expected to affect play.