James Lawton at Hoylake: Woods' will to win burns implacably through adversity

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The Independent Online

Rumours of an outbreak of peace between Tiger Woods and Nick Faldo had been overstated. The third member of their group, Shingo Katayama, must have felt like the child of a loveless marriage. He tried to get on with his life as optimistically as he could, but all the time he had to be waiting for the sound of breaking crockery.

Instead of that, however, there was something much more familiar. It was the sight of Woods pushing everything to one side, including his resentment of Faldo's wounding analysis of his swing and a putter so cold a two-footer was missed on the first green, while fighting his way into the heart of a major.

The gallery that marched through the heat haze knew early this wasn't going to be one of the days the Tiger pushed back the boundaries of the game he has dominated so profoundly for nearly a decade. It was to be his brand of attrition.

It was the imposition of a fierce will ­ and under its force even the recalcitrant putter warmed to the point of a final stroke of brilliance ­ the 25-foot eagle putt that left Woods one off the pace and threatening to take hold of golf's oldest major prize for a third time.

Faldo got an early hint of the master's mood when he waited to shake his hand on the first tee. Woods had been talking with the official announcer, Ivor Robson, as Faldo ­ a six-time major champion, it was too easy to forget ­ waited like a supplicant at the emperor's court. Woods smiled broadly when he spoke with Robson; then he turned to Faldo with a face turned to stone. The brief shaking of hands was the last word in strict formality. Kisses of death have been delivered less coldly.

For Faldo, whose dry response when he heard last Monday he had been drawn with Woods was that perhaps he needed more time to prepare for the ordeal, there was certainly the sense of a negative verdict from the great man.

Faldo's mood was scarcely improved by a double-bogey on the second hole. At the turn he was listing hopelessly at five over par, a position on which he could not improve despite two birdies on the inward half. Woods, meanwhile, was playing with that trademarked tunnel vision with which he sees the world between surges of brilliance. The putter never got much better than lukewarm except for that last stroke, a careful six-footer on the 14th saving par, but Woods' extraordinary ability to manage a course, and take what was available, had by now carried him to two under ­ a position of promise on a course which offers par-five birdie opportunities on two of the last three holes.

Yet Woods is still seen as a brittle superstar in the wake of the death of his beloved father, Earl, and the challenge to his world supremacy being launched by his compatriot Phil Mickelson ­ a man who these days would not be guaranteed any warmer reception in the Tiger's lair than Faldo. While Mickelson put himself into the heart of matters with a three-under-par opening round, the fruit of relentless preparation in the sun-scourged days leading up to the tournament, Woods found himself in the middle of another crisis.

It came when his second shot on the par-five 10th hole flew into a bunker. Profoundly plugged, the ball stayed in the sand when Woods attempted to blast it on to the green. However, the Tiger did get the opportunity to play a beautiful recovery to within three feet ­ and also announce that if some days are better than others on the course where you are expected to be never less than brilliant, there is always at his disposal a nerve so superior it separated him, still utterly for the moment at least, from the rest of golfing humanity.

Woods played the kind of sand shot that challenges the laws of geometry and gravity. He putted home in the style of a man who had just shot himself out of jail, and in the final stages of his round he moved into a more aggressive mood, running a bold putt for eagle seven foot past the pin, but then coolly claiming the birdie.

That put him alongside Mickelson and in the position of a serious defender of the title he won so majestically at St Andrews last year. Suggestions that he has reached a critical point in his career, that the loss of his mentor and "closest friend", his father, and the rise of Mickelson, may swirl around the game, and yesterday it was true that some of the cries on behalf of the Tiger seemed born of nostalgia as much as genuine belief that he could be the miracle worker of the day.

Yet his was the name that shimmered on the edge of the scoreboard, then burst over all contenders.

Woods, everyone knew, had made slower starts than this and still decimated a field. His effort had been largely less than spellbinding but it carried the eternal promise of true winners.

The row with Faldo was the merest window dressing to his central concern. Not that it made it any less real in the Tiger's mind. He is unforgiving at times, and if you slight him you do not cause a small abrasion but a permanent scar. It is the way of some men. They make a big thing of a small incident, but each of them serves as fuel to a central passion. It is to be always the best. Yesterday, on a day when his genius lay largely dormant, Tiger Woods reminded us of his permanent place in their company. The genius could wait. The need to win could not.

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