"You'll never walk alone," they sing at Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC, just a ferry across the Mersey from Hoylake. It could be Tiger Woods' lifetime anthem, too. They came in their tens of thousands to the course here to line the fairways and surround the greens to worship their 2006 champion.
Unfortunately, they also came to take his picture. "Just put it on silent," Woods said after his round of three-under-par 69, complaining that he had to step away from several shots. The R&A has allowed smart phones on the course this year but this forward-looking embrace of technology does not account for numbskulls. "People were taking pictures. We had it all day," Woods said. "There were a lot of cameras out there. It was tough. I've had numerous years of dealing with this. You've just got to stay focused and plod round." The R&A was quick to put out a reminder to fans in a statement which, when translated, basically said: "Oi, behave yourselves."
Plodding was indeed what Woods did on the front nine. He stumbled to two bogeys in a row and the mood in the galleries was sombre on a scorching day perfect for sombreros. Perhaps his back was still sore after surgery. Perhaps he is no longer the dominant force he was back when he won his last Open here eight years ago. He is 38 years old after all, on a day when Rory McIlroy, aged 25, shot a six-under-par 66. Perhaps people expect too much of the former World No 1. He's No 7 now and missed this year's Masters and US Open after going under the knife.
But this is Tiger. Normal rules do not apply. Sporting gods do not go quietly into the night. They rage against time. Woods loves nothing more than stuffing it to his critics, those that say he will never win another major (his last victory was at the 2008 US Open) and that he will never reach Jack Nicklaus' record of 18. Revenge and bloody-mindedness are his oxygen.
Just when the obituaries were being planned as Woods huffed and puffed his way to a one-over-par front nine while birdies elsewhere were dropping like pennies in an arcade slot machine, Tiger once again turned back time and gave his people an encore of his glory days. There are always fireworks with Woods. But no one wants to see the damp squibs. Not to worry. From the 11th he lit the fuse and sent whizzers, bombs, stringers and rockets into the Wirral blue yonder.
Five birdies in six holes turned up the volume from oohs and aahhs to roars. At the par-three 13th, his iron approach plopped down on the green and came to a halt seven feet from the pin. The Tiger roar from the multitude crammed along the bank around the green spooked the one man and his dog walking along the beach beyond the dunes alongside the hole. Woods stood over the putt and not a sound could be heard save the warblers twittering in the reeds and the knee-length rough. Birdie.
A bogey at the 14th halted the run briefly after Woods hoiked his tee shot left into Hoylake's hay. A dropped shot from there was inevitable. But he nearly saved par. His putt dangled on the edge of the hole but stayed above ground. He grimaced and leaned on his putter like Charlie Chaplin on his walking stick. But nobody laughed. Only silence.
They cheered him all the way along the 50-yard march from the 15th green to the 16th tee. His people had baked for hours, as temperature dials rose, just waiting for a glimpse of their hero. "Stay indoors, Britain," warned the Met Office. Not a chance. Tiger's putter was firing up its own heatwave on the greens. He gave them another birdie and a fist pump. The kids that had bunked off school had a story to tell their mates.
Another birdie at the par-five 16th. Woods missed the green with his second shot but chipped out of a hollow to inches from the hole. "Bloody magic, Tiger lad, get in," yelled a Scouse accent. "The man is back," the fan added, like an on-course commentator that nobody really wants to be standing next to.
The last time Tiger walked on to the 18th green here in 2006, he was about to fall into the arms of his caddie Steve Williams (who now works for Adam Scott) and burst into tears. Victory was his but he was missing his recently departed father, Earl. Those memories must have come flooding back as he was cheered home. The horseshoe-shaped grandstand seats 7,000. The hoots and whistles sounded like as many old-fashioned kettles boiling at the same time.
"It wasn't exactly the greatest of starts." Woods said, "but I turned it around." He hit only 10 fairways but found 14 greens in regulation while belting a driver only once. Did that run of birdies feel like old times? Woods was asked. "It wasn't that long ago," he said to much laughter. "I did win five times last year." It is easy to forget that fact because Woods has raised the bar so far that his career is measured in majors rather than regular tournament victories.
"I felt good about a lot of things I did out there," he said. "Especially coming back after that start I had to fight back into the championship."
What parts of his game need improving? "All of it," said the perfectionist. "But I'm getting stronger, I'm getting faster, I'm getting more explosive, the ball is starting to travel again." He is back in the hunt.
"There are a ton of players between two and four under," he said. "We're going to be bunched. That's the way this championship, I think, is going to unfold."
With that he was off to get his back rubbed. "Just soft tissue," he said. If Woods continues with this impressive comeback, a soft tissue is what his rivals are going to need before too long – to cry into.Reuse content