Just another day at the office for the world's best player
Woods happy to finish one under par and within range of first-round leaders after day of missed opportunities on Muirfield's slow greens
Friday 19 July 2002
A few hours later, when the crisis had passed and Tiger Woods was once again stalking the leaders of a major tournament with the authority of a thoroughly practised gunfighter, it was not so easy recalling the intensity of the moment.
For 17 holes after the flashpoint which came in the deep rough off the first fairway, Woods, despite seeing a series of exquisite putts lap around the lips of holes set trickily on the agonisingly slow greens – his perhaps generous estimate was eight – was an ocean of calm.
Once, on the 17th green, he sighed with a touch of anguish when another putt refused to go down.
But the storm had come hard and early when a Japanese cameraman for the second time in a few minutes pulled the trigger too quickly. The first roll of the camera bit deeply into Woods' concentration and the man launching himself into the third leg of an attempt on the Grand Slam saw his tee shot fly into the high grass on the right of the fairway. Then, when Woods addressed a lie which he feared had double-bogey written all over it, the quick-fire lensman squeezed again, Woods pulled out of the shot and walked towards the photographer. His face was thunderous and he said: "Haven't you taken enough freaking pictures already... you did it on the tee, and you're doing it again now." The cameraman was stripped of his credential and bundled roughly off the course. The Tiger went back to work. He did it sublimely enough to turn a double-bogey into a par, one that was produced by a nerveless, eight-foot saving putt and a combination of muscle and touch that had sent the ball rocketing out of the rough like a startled game bird.
Woods said: "When I saw my lie, I told myself if I could avoid double I was doing well. It was like stealing a couple of shots there making par. Somehow I got out of there, and though it is frustrating that I was hitting some beautiful putts without getting any reward, I have to feel happy about my position. On the first day of a major you can shoot yourself out of a tournament. I certainly didn't do that."
While his playing partners, Justin Rose, the reinstated white hope of British golf, and Japan's effervescent Shigeki Maruyama – who celebrated a hole-in-one at the recent US Open with a star-shaped leap of joy, charged to three-under, Woods settled philosophically for the lurker's role. He finished one under – three off the lead – and pronounced it a good day at the office. Not a day to move the earth or revitalise the stock-market. Not a day to make the game's first calender "slam" seem a little more inevitable. But one to underline the most basic strength of Woods as he seeks to extend his domination of the game. It is his belief that he can win more or less however he pleases.
Just 24 hours earlier his closest rival, the world No 2 Phil Mickelson, had consigned to history Jack Nicklaus' old belief that the way to win a major was to sit on the elbow of the leaders and then pounce on their mistakes. "The trouble with this theory is that it no longer works, " said Mickelson, "because we have a guy out there who doesn't make mistakes."
Woods' belief that he can do it his own way – or the Nicklaus way – is, despite his lack of pyrotechnics yesterday, for the moment under only the lightest pressure. The unlikely first day shared leadership of Duffy Waldorf looks vulnerable to the first stiff breeze off the Firth of Forth, as does that of Carl Pettersson. But if David Toms, who already has a USPGA title is a more formidable threat, Woods remains serene.
He says: "Today anything under par is going to be a good score. If you shoot four solid rounds under par, more likely you're going to have a chance of winning the tournament. I got myself where I needed to be, especially if the weather is the way it's supposed to be the next two days." The forecast is of rain and wind and, Woods hints, a growing involvement of himself. "It was frustrating in the sense that I was hitting beautiful putts and they were lipping out. It is one thing that you are hitting a couple of putts and have them not going in, but I was hitting the putts well and they were just lipping out. When you have good speed on the high side generally they fall in. Today they were lipping out on the high side with good pace, which is very frustrating when you roll the ball at that speed and it lips out.
"What are you going to do? I was committed to my lines, I felt comfortable over the putts, but they didn't go in. So that's OK. At that first hole the cameraman was out of line. He took the picture at an inappropriate time and I backed off the shot and the second time I wasn't really as committed to my line as I should have been. It's fine taking a picture, but these guys are professional and they know when to do it. The one today might have had a heavy finger."
With three birdies and two bogeys, Woods could not claim that his own fingers were at their most intuitive. But he insists they were expressive enough to give him confidence that he can begin to mould the tournament to his needs over the next few days. "I'm happy if the tougher conditions come because if you play well and shoot a good solid round you are going to move up."
Woods was polite about the performances of his playing partners and came up with the right answer when he was asked if Rose had a chance of winning. "Yes," said Woods, "he certainly has the talent. If he executes golf shots the way he has been doing he'll be fine." But fine enough to deny Woods another leg of a journey into golfing history? Woods is no slouch at diplomacy, but not to the point of denying his own right to win.
On a gentle day, the Tiger was often less than rampant. But his desire, and his capacity, to win was still not in question, If you doubted that, you had only to check with a Japanese photographer who may never pull the trigger quite so quickly again.
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