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Tiger Woods and Serena Williams Are Friends With a Comeback Connection

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NORTON, Mass. — Tiger Woods planned to start the Labor Day weekend like millions of other people: parked in front of a screen Friday night watching the United States Open tennis match between Serena Williams and her older sister, Venus.

Woods, a 14-time major winner, came to know Serena, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, when she was living near him in Florida.

“We’re very close friends,” Woods said after shooting a one-over-par 72 in the first round of the Dell Technologies Championship on Friday.

Like the Williams sisters, Williams was raised by a father intent on cultivating a champion in a sport not known for a rich tapestry of minority competitors. Woods also is like Serena Williams in that he has made startling progress in 2018 after a significant physical trial. For Woods, it was a fourth back operation; for Williams, it was a first pregnancy that involved post-delivery complications.

After Williams advanced to the final at Wimbledon in her fourth post-childbirth tournament and Woods tied for sixth at the British Open in his 12th official start since a spinal fusion in April 2017, they compared notes.

“We’ve talked at length,” said Woods, who showed up at Wimbledon to watch Williams in the final. He added, “I think we both have had some nice comebacks this year.”

Woods’s 72 at TPC Boston seemed the best score he could have wrung out of a round in which he found only half the greens in regulation. His start in the Dell tournament, the second FedExCup playoff event, was a microcosm of his play this year, as he has sought his first victory since 2013. Woods came into this week averaging 71.07 strokes in opening rounds, compared with 70.47 in his second, 68.38 in his third and 69.92 in his fourth.

Woods was three over after his first seven holes, but fought hard to stay within striking distance of the leader, Justin Rose, who at six under had a one-stroke advantage over Abraham Ancer and Russell Knox.

“Hopefully tomorrow I can miss in correct spots and make a few more birdies than I did today,” Woods said, adding, “I was three over early and didn’t have a whole lot going on. But I hung in there.”

Woods arrived at the 10th tee — where he began the round — a few minutes ahead of his starting time. That was a marked improvement over last week’s opening round of the Northern Trust, when the cart carrying him to his first hole, the course’s ninth, arrived with alarmingly little time to spare. The driver took a circuitous route to circumvent the human traffic jam engendered by Woods’s presence at Ridgewood Country Club.

Fans turned out in droves again on Friday to watch Woods’s first start at this event since 2013, lining the entire right side of the 10th hole.

Alas, lining the left side was a lateral hazard, and Woods pulled his 3-wood shot into the nature area, verdant with knee-high grasses. After taking a one-stroke penalty, he had to make a knee-knocking six-footer to salvage an opening bogey. His score might have soared if not for his putting, which was uniformly solid and included a 24-footer for par on the par-3 eighth.

Woods was grouped with Chez Reavie and, for the second consecutive week, Marc Leishman, who has found there are pluses to playing in front of Woods’s loud and unwieldy galleries.

On the sixth hole, his 15th, Leishman caught a huge break when his approach bounced onto the green after hitting the shoe of a fan who was on the move to get a better vantage point for Woods’s next shot. Leishman, who had opened with a double bogey, sank the 57-foot putt for the last of his five birdies in a round of 68.

The advantage had not been so obvious to Leishman when he lined up a putt at the group’s third hole. Woods had just made par, and a wave of spectators started walking toward the next tee.

A tournament volunteer had to raise his hands and yell, “Hold up, please, one more golfer.” After Leishman holed his putt, the volunteer started to walk away and had to be reminded that yet another golfer — Reavie — still had to putt out.

Woods made his first birdie, from 10 feet, on his eighth hole. Nothing came easy for him on this day, but he didn’t let the tournament get away from him. The ability to grind out decent scores from bad swings is a hallmark of Woods’s career.

In that respect, he reminds Rory McIlroy, a former world No. 1 who shot a 71 on Friday, of two other superstars he has spent time around.

“I would compare Tiger more to Rafa,” McIlroy said Thursday, referring to Rafael Nadal, who has won 17 Grand Slam titles. “He’s just sheer determination. Will to win. Grit.”

“Serena, same thing,” McIlroy added.

McIlroy said he was inspired by the comebacks of both Williams and Woods. McIlroy remembered having lunch with Woods in Florida in the spring of 2017.

“He wasn’t swinging, he wasn’t playing, he just had started to walk again,” McIlroy said. “To think of where he was then to now and it’s just over a year, it’s incredible.”


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