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Sublime Woods grafts a path to dominance

James Lawton at St Andrews

There were times, we are told, though not by an avalanche of witnesses, when Pele performed an inelegant act on a football field and the whole world saw that Muhammad Ali's most famous victory, over George Foreman, required some work that owed its inspiration as much to a back alley as Mount Olympus.

There were times, we are told, though not by an avalanche of witnesses, when Pele performed an inelegant act on a football field and the whole world saw that Muhammad Ali's most famous victory, over George Foreman, required some work that owed its inspiration as much to a back alley as Mount Olympus.

Genius finds a way, and for a reminder of this you needed only to be in the company of Tiger Woods at the Road Hole yesterday.

He played a shot out of the rough which was less than aesthetically perfect, a fact which was underlined at its completion by the narrow avoidance of landing his right knee on the point of his chin. Inelegant? Harpo Marx has displayed more natural grace, but then he was merely walking over furniture.

The Tiger was putting his unique stamp on a round of 67 which came as near to an immediate annexation of the Millennium Open as good manners permit.

Until his poor tee shot at the 17th, Woods' control over his environment, his ability to correct shortfalls of position created by sometimes less than perfect iron play, was simply eerie. He seemed proofed against damaging error, and the reality of that impression was surely established by his response to the late-flowering crisis in an otherwise stunningly composed handling of the pressure that inevitably accompanied his 15-strokevictory at the US Open.

He will play countless rounds of more spectacle and gunsmoke. He will explore the reaches of his talent at far more depth and consistency. But you have to doubt that he will ever improve much on the sense of a young man so totally at peace with the challenge before him. They say that youth is wasted on the young but perhaps they never heard of Tiger Woods.

As is his habit, he supplied a detailed account of the thought process and the execution of a shot which saved both par and golf's nearest thing to a doctrine of infallibility. "I was trying to hit hard with my right hand, then again hold on with the left," he said. "You have to open up the face because you know the grass is not going to grab the club head; it is going to grab the shaft. That's the trick to it. You need to hit hard, hold on so you don't trip it. It was a delicate balance I was trying to find, trying to hang on."

The Tiger hung on, all right. As he explained, the resulting shot fulfilled all its aims. It took him to the foot of the green and the chance to make a lagging putt, which provoked roars from the crowd and a burst of hand-clapping from caddie Steve Williams. Woods was asked about the excited reaction of his caddie and he mugged surprise, opening his eyes wide. "Well, it was a good shot," he said.

"It all worked. I was trying to put the shot from the rough to the right side of the hump in the middle, and putt down to the green. I was able to do that, did it perfect." Overall, perfection was not the word you reached for, surprisingly enough, after a round which made a statement of professionalism that was almost surreal - and provided still more evidence that Woods is indeed the player of the ages who, barring the misadventures of injury and re-directed ambition, will surely sweep beyond the extraordinary achievements of Jack Nicklaus. Certainly there was perfection here but on this occasion it was not of technique or sublime inspiration, except for that dismissal of danger on the hole which a little earlier had done so much to damage the brilliant work of his friend and former Stanford college-mate Notah Begay. It was rather a perfection of understanding how it is sometimes when a remarkable set of natural resources cannot be called upon at will.

Woods knew, from early in his round, that he would have to feel his way, graft a path to dominance rather than carve it out with a few breath-takinginitiatives.

He was asked if the weight of his achievements, and particularly the most recent one at Pebble Beach, had weighed him down. "To be honest with you," he said, "I just want to go out there and play. It was neat to go and play in a major championship again. After what happened at the US Open you just have to put it behind you. I felt pretty good coming into the day. I felt my swing and game were coming around, and for the most part, I was all right out there. No, I didn't have mood swings - it's not that time of the month for me, I don't think."

Whether that last unguarded remark escapes censure, only time will tell, but in the meantime even a line which, at the very least, will probably provoke a sharp word from his girlfriend, carries almost a touch of reassurance that Tiger Woods may not yet be at the point of complete mastery of every situation, sporting or social.

Certainly that was where the weight of his work was yesterday pointing us. He played the first eight holes to par, which was not quite what anyone expected but he was quick to say: "I think anyone would settle for that going into a major tournament, and even in conditions as good as they were today. They were the best I've known here."

What Woods achieved was a rhythm of certainty which, you reflected later, inevitably led to the machine gun fire of birdies. He started with a putt from 14 feet at the ninth, and followed up immediately with what he described as a "wonderful two-putt" at the par-four, 379-yard 10th. He birdied the 12th, 14th and 15th holes and saved the 17th in that statement of sheer will. There on the 17th, and earlier at the 10th, Woods gave the day its drama and the soaring quality we have come to expect whenever he steps on to the tee.

But his work on this occasion was not about such a rich diet of excellence. It was about working a way around a golf course, controlling circumstances, putting yourself into a position to strike. At one point Woods and his player partners, the assured young American amateur Dave Gossett and Nick Price, were put on the clock with an impending charge of slow play, but the censure lasted just a couple of holes and later Woods was indignant about the possibility of disciplinary action. He just didn't see any call for it. He was always in position to play, he claimed. There was a touch of ice in his self-defence, as there had been in his refusal to accept even a hint of lasting crisis on the course.

He said that he was not happy with all his shot-making, but, "at least I knew where to put the ball and I was doing that most of the day. I was putting pretty conservative; but there were times when I got a bit more aggressive. And I did make five birdies."

He said it with a laugh. Five birdies, no bogeys and a pummelling statement of authority on the first day of an historic Open, it wasn't so bad. For the record, Tiger Woods is 24.