Golf: Open 99: Woods enjoys trusting his instincts

The Open: After a start that threatened to leave the rest behind, Tiger is tamed but not dismayed by the conditions
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The Independent Online
FOR AN hour, it looked like a different tournament altogether. In the calm of yesterday morning, Tiger Woods transformed Carnoustie's fairways back into something the average club golfer could contemplate. He birdied the first with a flourish of his putter, came within an aggregate of six lateral inches of earning further strokes at the second, third, and fourth, followed a sensible tee-shot with a lovely approach that landed 12 feet past the pin on the weirdly undulating green of the fifth hole, and watched with pleasure as the ball rolled a couple of feet back to meet him. It wasn't a blonde in a black bikini, but it might have been the next best thing.

When he respotted the ball, he positioned it carefully with the maker's name lined up on the hole. As he stroked it home for his second birdie, playing for a six-inch break from left to right, the sky had been borrowed from the Cote d'Azur and the breeze was a cooling Caribbean zephyr. If the scantily clad blonde who surprised him with a kiss on the 18th green on Thursday had bided her time, here would have been a far more appropriate setting for her frolic.

Now he was one over par for the competition, and heading for goodness knows what sort of score. So where had Thursday's all-devouring monster hidden itself? The answer was just around the corner. At the sixth, a mighty par five which had produced splodges of double-bogey black next to famous names all over the first-round scoreboard, Woods found himself playing not into Thursday's howling gale but into freshening south-westerly gusts. Two careful irons took to within 150 yards of the pin, negotiating the central bunkers by the aerial route, but his third shot made him grimace even though it finished up on the fringe of the green, allowing him to save his par by two-putting from 25 feet.

If that was a warning growl, the next sound he heard was the monster's full-throated roar. After another crisp iron down the seventh fairway, again into the wind, he examined his ball, lying on the upsweep of one of the myriad mounds that make Carnoustie resemble a mogul run in the Cairngorms, and seemed in two minds. To make the 190 yards to the front of the green, he wanted to hit a three-iron. But the three would catch the wind and hold up, and might not carry the staggered pair of bunkers guarding the entrance to the target. Even a two-iron would have to be hit low, under the wind, in order to carry both bunkers.

He chose the longer club, but was initially horrified by the result. "I drilled it too low," he said, "and I drilled it into the hill I was standing on. It kinda looked like I topped it. But it got a good bounce and rolled straight up on the green."

He strode up to the ball, 30 feet from the pin, knowing that for an hour he had been putting like a genius, caressing the ball across the greens from all distances as gently as if his hands had been bathed nightly since birth in asses' milk. Only those six inches had prevented a run of birdies that would have ripped the tournament apart, making a mockery of all those whingeing millionaires who don't want to play golf on anything more demanding than manicured lawns.

What happened next, however, suggested that the first aberration of the round had been enough to disturb his concentration. For the first putt, he might as well have been wearing the gloves from a suit of armour. Instead of coaxing the ball to within inches of the hole, he ran it four feet past. And then, bringing it back, he overran by another two feet. The third putt was successful, but he had dropped his first shot.

Between the seventh green and the eighth tee he and Craig Parry had a repeat of Thursday's race to be first to the Portaloo. On Thursday, Woods had got there first. Yesterday the race went to Parry, who is built like the third member of the threesome, Ian Woosnam, but nevertheless had a good 20-yard lead as he slammed the door shut.

Maybe the delay gave Tiger time to refocus his thoughts. At the 474-yard ninth, the Railway hole, he started once again with a conservative iron but regained his touch with a 30-foot putt that grazed the lip and stopped a few inches beyond. At the 10th, another birdie opportunity was created an narrowly missed.

But at the 11th and 12th his followers could see how the conditions were changing. Hitting an iron off the tee into the bunker at the 11th, his first failure to find the fairway all day, he splashed out and two-putted. At the 12th he hit his second shot through the green and up on to a scrubby bank, requiring another two putts. Now he was back to three over, where he had started the day.

At the 13th, he missed a 25ft birdie putt. Reaching the green of the par-five 14th in two, he could hear the wind singing in the pipes of the grandstand as he narrowly missed a 20-footer for eagle but made his birdie. After a long wait on the tee, a four at the short 16th undid that good work.

"I played solid," he said, "and even when I made bogeys I hit good shots. There's nothing you can do about that. This golf course is going to penalise you, whether you hit good shots or bad shots."

All day he had been adopting a philosophy of prudence and placing his faith in his long irons off the tee. At the 17th, facing a wind as strong as Thursday's, he unsheathed his driver for the first time. Trying to manufacture a shot, he pulled it and saw the ball fly over Barry Burn and land on a gravel path. A free drop gave him a decent lie on some heavily- trodden medium rough, and he zipped a superb recovery almost 150 yards to the apron of the green, from where he two-putted to save his par.

His bogey at the 18th, two-putting after chipping back from the rough behind the green, was a bit of an anticlimax, but he was not dismayed by his round of 72 for a total of 146. "I'm in very good shape," he said. "I've always enjoyed playing in terrible conditions. I guess growing up in Southern California, we didn't have too many days like these. So because of that, any time it was bad I would be out there on the golf course trying to play it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. You have to be more creative, and not be afraid to trust your instincts."

If instinct and creativity, allied to a cool head, are indeed the formula for victory in the 128th Open Championship, then Tiger Woods, at 23, must be favoured to confirm the genius we saw at Augusta National two years ago by picking up his second Major here on Sunday. Whatever tests Carnoustie still has up its sleeve, this man looks ready for them.