Clemson’s Sam Saunders opens strong again at Riviera; Tiger has 72

Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the fourth hole during the first round of the Genesis Open golf tournament at Riviera Country Club Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tiger Woods lost a ball in a tree early in his round, played from the wrong hole late and ended his return to Riviera with a reasonable start in the Genesis Open.

It was more of the same for Sam Saunders, and hope that it will get better as the week goes on.

Saunders played bogey-free over his final 16 holes on a firm, difficult course at Riviera for a 4-under 67 to share the lead with Tom Hoge and Dominic Bozzelli among the early starters Thursday.

A year ago, Saunders opened with a 64 to lead after the opening round, only to follow with a 77 that took him out of the mix for the rest of the week.

“Last year was kind of a hot day. I just kind of had everything going for me,” Saunders said. “Today, I just played good golf. I actually left a lot of shots out there. I’m very pleased with my round, but I missed a lot of very makeable birdie putts, and it could have been a lot better round today. But it was fun because I was very in control of what I was doing out there.”

Hoge birdied the 15th and 18th holes, two of the stronger holes at Riviera.

Defending champion Dustin Johnson was among those playing in the afternoon, and he already was in a hole. Johnson chopped up the fifth hole, going over the green from deep grass for his third shot, and then taking two to get on the putting surface on his way to a triple bogey.

Woods opened with a birdie by playing the short par-4 10th to perfection. His fourth shot was sailing toward the eucalyptus trees, and before long, Woods was riding in a cart back to the tee. The ball was never found, presumably lost in the tree. He made double bogey. Woods finished by playing his second shot to the ninth green from a bunker on the 10th hole. He still managed par.

In between was mostly a decent day with Woods converting seven putts inside 10 feet, a mixture of pars and birdies, in a 72.

“I’m not that far off to really putting some good numbers out there,” Woods said. “I’ve got to clean up my card — too many bogeys out there. If I can just clean that up, I can start making my way up the board.”

Woods played with Justin Thomas, who had a 69, and Rory McIlroy, who had a 71.

They had the largest gallery of the day, most of them to see Woods, who had not played at Riviera since 2006. It was never hard to figure out where Woods was on the golf course, and that was particularly true for Saunders.

He was teeing off on the par-3 fourth when he looked down the hill at Woods playing the 18th.

“I looked over and watched because I grew up watching Tiger do what he did,” Saunders said. “And I’m a big fan like we all are out here and it’s really cool to see him out and we all want him to be out here every week and playing well. It just brings a different buzz to the tournament and it’s really good for the game of golf, so it’s cool for me to be playing in a tournament that he’s playing in and be able to compete against him, a guy that I grew up just in awe of basically.”

Saunders knows all about the energy one player can bring to a tournament. He heard plenty of stories about his grandfather, Arnold Palmer, who first brought the masses to golf more than a half-century ago.

“I think that’s why I have so much respect for what he did and admire his career so much, because I didn’t get to see my grandfather’s firsthand like I got to see Tiger’s growing up watching TV,” Saunders said. “I know there’s a lot of parallels there.”

Chez Reavie was in the group at 68 and he was the only player from the morning to play bogey-free.

The most encouraging start might have belonged to Graeme McDowell, who has been hitting it well in practice and getting nothing out of it on the golf course. McDowell has missed the cut in four straight starts. He opened with a 69.

“I need to string some numbers together, get in the mix a little bit on the weekend, start believing in myself a little bit,” McDowell said. “That’s that little ‘X’ factor that you can’t go practice. You can’t go practice having the belief, you know?”

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