James Lawton: Menacing Tiger Woods leaves calling card at the Open
Warning. The real Tiger Woods may be back, but we will need to see more than a few glimpses of magic
Tiger Woods, the real one this is, made a brief appearance at the 141st Open here yesterday – and then disappeared. However, he promised to return today and no one could say he hadn't left a superb calling card. Yes, the Tiger was back – with the right numbers (four birdies over the first seven holes) and the right demeanour.
There were moments when this indeed might have been a golfer of the ages and he was cheered hugely when he walked off the course after shooting a three-under 67 that left him placed menacingly on a leaderboard alive with major tournament winners.
"You're still the man, Tiger," one fan shouted with more passion than originality, but the sentiment had been minted in an impressive reality, one, indeed, that augmented the one he created earlier in the week when he talked about his enthusiasm for the course here which he played so well 16 years ago that he was persuaded to turn professional.
That decision saw him anointed as the wunderkind of golf less than a year later when he not only won the US Masters by a record margin but also suggested to many that he was about to re-define the game. This he did, substantially, on his way to winning 13 more majors and yesterday the most pressing question was quite inevitable.
It asked simply: "Is the real Tiger back?"
We will know soon enough but, in the meantime, there is a need for some considerable caution. There have been other indicators that the Tiger was about to re-claim his empire. He has already won three US Tour tournaments this season and in the process of claiming the Memorial at Jack Nicklaus's Muirfield course in Dublin, Ohio, he produced one shot that the Golden Bear said that, in all the circumstances, could not have been improved upon by anyone who ever played the game.
Yet there has been something of the false dawn about such breakthroughs, and even yesterday at one point there was a surge of belief that the Tiger might shoot as low as 62. However, if the birdies disappeared there was still plenty of evidence that Woods may be growing stronger at some seriously broken places.
On the 15th hole, the lull in his strike rate could easily have turned into a full-blown disaster.
Having hooked into the rough, which he had earlier this week described as potentially unplayable, he brought gasps when he elected to go for the green instead of a damage-controlling pitch back on to the fairway. He failed to clear the rough and was left with another shot from the deep grass. This time, though, he hit it superbly and came within an inch of making par on a hole that had come so close to destroying his momentum.
Woods was relaxed enough when he came off the course, saying: "I felt like I played well today. I really hit it well and I was very close to making a few more putts. Every ball was starting right on my line. I was very pleased with that. I've just got to hit the putts a little harder.
"On the 15th, I was just trying to hit the ball 80 yards in the air. I had the face open but it snagged and just went left. People don't realise how deep some spots are. Some are benign but others are not and I found one of those."
What he did confirm, though, was his belief that this was a golf course which encouraged the creative instinct. The reassurance came almost as soon as he stepped on the first tee yesterday.
"It was pretty soft," he said. "The wind wasn't blowing and we were backing golf balls up [successfully applying backspin]. That's something we just don't see. On the first hole, we had a perfect indication. I hit a five-iron straight at it and it rolled out eight feet. I can't remember the last time it did that on a links course.
"So we knew that we needed at least to get off to a quick start on that front nine and I figured a couple under would have been good. But I looked up on the board and saw Scotty [Adam ] was going pretty low and so was everyone else. I felt I had to make a few more – and I was able to."
He said it nonchalantly in the way of an old pro who knows what he has to do and, most vitally, understands that he can do it. This hasn't been the strongest element in the armoury of the Tiger for quite some time, but yesterday it came as easily as a breeze.
The first birdie was effortless. He took it with the kind of assurance that marked his first astonishing rise. It was not a prize but a right and from that moment Woods seemed to operate on the assumption that more or less anything was within his powers.
Naturally, some of the old angst returned quickly enough when he was obliged to give back a shot on the 15th, but the old buoyancy was again in place when he strode to the 18th green to warm applause. Perhaps he was imagining how thunderous it might be on Sunday afternoon if he just happened to build on the promise of his first round.
"I'm very pleased with what I did today," he said later. "I only hit one putt that was off line. But every putt was right on my start lines. I just needed to hit the putts a little bit harder. These greens are not quick. So I have to make that adjustment. We've got a long way to go. We've got three more rounds and I got off to a positive start today. We've got a lot of golf to play."
It is the kind of pronouncement that used to fall so easily from his lips, back when he believed, and we all suspected, he could do anything he wanted. That wasn't quite true yesterday but there were times when it wasn't so hard to believe.
As calling cards go, this one was more of a warning.
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