Europeans draw first blood but Woods hovers after final eagle

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The Independent Online

First blood to Europe, although the quickening pulse says there is so much to come. And, naturally, nobody is pumping it more furiously than that Tiger Woods.

This enthralling first day of the Open Championship will rightfully be remembered for his punch in the air on the final green after an eagle that took him to within one of Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell. But more than simply hauling him so ominously to five-under, that moment of grandstand gold signalled his return after the death of his father and mentor.

The manner in which he hung in there for a 67 of sheer courage and class would certainly have cheered Earl. For this Tiger bears no resemblance to the Tiger who missed his first major cut as a professional at Winged Foot four weeks ago. "I knew I was back at the Western Open two weeks ago, when I finished second after not starting off so well," he explained. "I had basically only played two competitive rounds in almost three and a half months. I was rusty. I feel good after this 67."

He was not the only one. Hoylake's comeback was just as impressive, ending 39 years in Open wilderness with a first-round that posed the question: why on earth did they stay away so long? The modern-day professional was supposed to bring this sun-baked anachronism to its knees. But instead the belligerent old so-and-so stood proud.

In doing so, Royal Liverpool had to withstand a savage blow from the weather. The overnight storms had softened its fairways and greens and hence its challenge. When play began 30 minutes late because of the threat of thunder, there was barely a breeze and barely a reason to believe the early men would not tuck in. Except for Hoylake's delicious subtleties, of course.

By lunchtime only a pair of unheralded Englishmen had beaten par by five. Greg Owen and Anthony Wall were nobody's idea of the principal home hopes, but as the afternoon came and the drying conditions unarguably made the layout more difficult it was odds-on that the lad with a bad back from Mansfield and the cab driver's son from London would keep hold of their unlikely lead, especially as a few galacticos in Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson had already completed their fine openings in 68 and 69 respectively.

But then came McDowell and then came Woods and suddenly the leader board took on an entirely different feel. In an instant it was undoubtedly one to die for, to sigh for.

Not that McDowell should be gasping with terror - and nor should Europe. There are enough here in contention to exude enough confidence that the seven-year major drought could soon be over, what with Miguel Angel Jimenez alongside Woods in the group of five on five-under, with Sergio Garcia on four-under and Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood on three-under.

And even the Euros who did not perform should be inspired by McDowell's turnaround. As with most things on his island it was a glory born in the pub. "I was having a couple of beers last night and this local boy came up," said the 26-year-old. "You're Graeme McDowell, aren't you? I know your game. You get pretty laid off at the top, don't get parallel, do you? You need to work on that, mate'."

The Ulsterman had been doing so anyway, but it was odd the improvement came straight after a stranger's prompting. Perhaps it is also the thought of Fred Daly, the only Irish major winner, having triumphed here 59 years ago which has helped him. "I did think of that as I went around," confessed McDowell. "Fred was from the same club [Royal Portrush] as me ­ there's a lot of symmetry."

Far from being symmetrical, Woods' round was diametrical, beginning with a tugged two-footer for par at the first and finished by that sweetly struck 25-footer on the last. "It was funny because I watched someone else make that putt earlier," he said. "It doesn't break at the end, it holds its line. I would have given that hole away if I hadn't seen that pointer. I'm right there in the ball-game, now."

That is all he is, though, for not only was there enough sloppiness yesterday to suggest Woods' game is not as sharp as his competitive instinct might be, but also so many in contention. In all, there are 19 within two of McDowell and, incredibly, 31 within three. Of these Woods will focus most intensely on Mickelson, who went some way to exorcising his US Open demons with some gutsy brilliance of his very own.

There is also Ernie Els, who, after a year of injury and frustration, is looking like "The Big Easy" again as he languidly put a bogeyed beginning behind him to pick up six birdies; his six-iron to four inches on the 13th coming within inches of a hole-in-one. But even in the light of this, it was difficult to conclude that this had been about anything but Woods and Hoylake. Both are back. And both promise everything.

Whatever happened to... the first-round leaders?

2005 (St Andrews)

Tiger Woods (US) 66 (-6)

Woods won

2004 (Royal Troon)

Thomas Levet (Fr) & Paul Casey (Eng) 66 (-5)

Casey finished 20T, Levet 5T

2003 (Royal St George's)

Hennie Otto (SA) 68 (-3)

Otto finished 10T

2002 (Muirfield)

Carl Pettersson (Swe), Duffy Waldorf (US) & David Toms (US) 67 (-4)

Pettersson 43T, Waldorf 18T, Toms 83

2001 (Royal Lytham & St Annes)

Colin Montgomerie (Sco) 65 (-6)

Montgomerie finished 13T

2000 (St Andrews)

Ernie Els (SA) 66 (-6)

Els finished 2T

1999 (Carnoustie)

Rodney Pampling (Aus) 71 (level)

Pampling finished 99T (missed the cut by three shots)

1998 (Royal Birkdale)

John Huston (US) & Tiger Woods (US) 65 (-5)

Huston finished 10T, Woods 3rd

1997 (Royal Troon)

Darren Clarke (N Irl) & Jim Furyk (US) 67 (-4)

Clarke finished 2T, Furyk 4th

1996 (Royal Lytham & St Annes)

Paul Broadhurst (Eng) 65 (-6)

Broadhurst finished 26T