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James Lawton: Woods conjures flashes of his old genius

All Tiger needed was an opening drive which dissected the fairway and he got it

Tiger Woods may be obliged to kill a problem inside of him but the hope has always been that something will survive cleanly into the second half of his life. It is called genius and at least some of the evidence in possibly his most draining challenge on a golf course says that it will.

When he went four-under again as dusk began to drop over the pines and the azaleas there was an overwhelming sense that the most dramatic talent golf may ever have seen was, remarkably, not too far from full working order.

He had gone out to face a profoundly doubting world and the first thing he did was prove that if for so many jarring reasons he was in turmoil, there was about his game more than a touch of familiar strength.

Maybe he could stand and fight on the friendliest terrain he had known since driving into a fire hydrant and when he showed some brilliant touches around Amen Corner there was a growing sense that the risk of meltdown predicted by many critics – and some rivals – had been passed.

The course was put on a tornado warning but what was such passing turbulence in the life of possibly the most buffeted golfer in the history of his sport? After 144 days away from competition, there was an maybe an inevitable unevenness about the Tiger's (right) work. His driving was erratic – though in a great triumph of will his first tee-shot in front of an expectant world sailed into a perfect position for him to set up an easy par – and some of his chipping lurched towards the unrecognisable. This cost him a bogey on the 14th, when for the first time the pressure of the day reached him so heavily that he showed his first sign of regressing into the old, ferocious theatricals.

He threw down his club on the fairway, but then, when he a few minutes later chipped poorly, he managed to raise a resigned smile.

After birdies at the third and a brilliant eagle at the eighth, which immediately repaired the damage of a bogey on the seventh, he was facing an earlier threat of a breakdown at the ninth when an erratic drive left the green blocked by a tree.

The Tiger's solution came straight form his old book of sorcery. He hooked the ball around the tree, liked the feel of it and scampered into the fairway to take a better look.

What he saw gave him the most encouraging hint that he might indeed be experiencing the first day of a kind of redemption. The ball was 12 feet from the hole for birdie, so naturally he sank it.

It had been tense progress but from the first tee you could see that this was a man who had resolved to launch his fightback. He did it with a drive that cut through the first fairway with a conviction the Tiger has rarely shown at this point in the tournament he has won four times, but at which until yesterday he had never broken 70 on the first day.

No doubt, though, he would have chosen to banish if he could the circling plane which trailed the message, "Tiger did you mean Bootyism", a sneer at his claim that Buddhism has been installed as his guiding influence.

Still, at the start of his ordeal he shook hands with far more people than ever before at such a moment of pressure. He accepted the encouragement of his playing partners Matt Kuchar, a former All-American boy, and the Korean K J Choi. Green-jacketed officials patted him on the shoulder, shook his hand and the crowd clapped and cheered warmly.

Tiger touched his cap and smiled, a little tensely. All he needed was a drive dissecting the fairway, not hooking into the trees. He got it and we could only guess at the extent of the drop in his heart-rate.

He quickly showed that he was ready to fight against any evidence that another ambush was about to waylay his effort to put away the worst time of his life. This was after he had let some of the more encouraging results of his charm offensive over the last few days here slide, something that provoked near disbelief on the eve of the tournament when Nike, who still swell his bank balance by around $30m (£20m) a year, aired a promotional slot which featured a solemn Tiger and a voiceover of censure from beyond the grave supplied by his late father, Earl.

It was hard to imagine there had been a greater outrage against good taste in the advertising industry, but for many it had to be a devastating symbol of the plight Woods carried to the first tee.

On the eve of the tournament The Golf Channel editorialised against Woods in the most unforgiving manner. They said that not only were Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player the greatest golfers in history, they also had class.

Tiger loyalists might have pointed that Palmer's record of fidelity was not without question marks, that Tom Watson, no less, once accused Player of cheating and that Nicklaus only this week said that the only way he could be persuaded to revisit the Open at St Andrews was by an unspecified amount of hard cash.

For a few hours, though, the Tiger could push such matters into the margins of his pain when he walked out to a warm if slightly less than euphoric applause. What followed was more or less, and if you forgive the expression, pure Woods, three birdies, two eagles and three bogeys, some golf which came from the gods, some of which was the product of a man fighting harder than ever before to make a convincing impact.

When the temptation to throw a club, blaspheme, or even merely pout, was at its strongest, he plainly fought to resist it. He did it well enough, finishing four under but, significantly, just two shots off the pace.

A tornado had been in the air but, who knew maybe the storm in Tiger Woods had passed.