Tiger draws on conviction and nerve of old to stay in the fight
Triple Open champion shows his battling qualities to prevail on a difficult day
He used to make it look so easy, a mere walk beside the sea.
But that was when Tiger Woods ruled the world and did in it, on and off the golf course, pretty much as he pleased. Now he is trying to re-make at least some of that and yesterday in the wind that destroyed so many of his fellow professionals, it was at times desperately hard work.
Last night though he insisted that the story wasn't over – and came within an inch of an eagle on the 18th hole that would have sounded around a world sceptical that the Tiger will ever again hold golf by its throat.
Certainly the odds remain long that it will happen here at the home of the game, a place where he has twice won with performances of absolute authority. But when he had to settle for a birdie, he did so with the anger of a man who was impatient to get some vital work done, and that no doubt had been fuelled a little more by the nostalgic farewell of Tom Watson at Swilcan Bridge. He had been required to wait while another great champion took his bow. It has never been the Tiger's way, and maybe it never will be.
Nor is he ever likely to accept the worst of his fate, even though last night two bogeys coming home took at least a little fight and defiance out of his stride, though at four under he still has much potential today, the time when putative champions make a vital move.
That resistance to the worst possibilities had been more impressive than at any point since his life and his career took such a critical turn when he clawed back the two shots he lost on the first two holes. But then when he lapsed again on the 13th and 15th holes he was back in the middle of the kind of speculation that now seems to plague his every step. It is the kind that wonders if sometimes a man is trapped in circumstances he just cannot shake away.
It perhaps did not help so much that he was heading for the Valley of Sin that sits in judgement on the edge of the 18th hole.
Earlier, there had to be more than a flicker of concern that he might just be entering the kind of maelstrom that left him so devastated while missing the cut last year at Turnberry – and edging a little nearer to the moment when the world saw for the first time that he might just be losing his grip on his life as well as a once awesome game.
Yet such anxiety was, for the moment at least, rendered quite absurd. He chipped on to the green with all that gloriously distributed weight which so often used to separate him from the rest of the field and coolly tapped home a downhill, seven-foot putt for birdie.
There was no easy route out of the gale which was tearing down the first-day leader Rory McIlroy, who disappeared off the leader board faster than a sweet wrapper caught in a gust of the wind tearing in from the North Sea. Woods checked his swing twice on the sixth tee, then swung his club in the air as his drive misfired again, this time left. After knocking it on the fairway, he was once again struggling to make par. He did so, but it it was all desperately hard work and much more about survival than any easy plundering.
After his first round 67 the Tiger said, rather smugly, that the weather generally came in at 11am, but "there just isn't any weather." There was now, and it meant that his Thursday night assessment of how to make an early impact when the wind is down suddenly seemed like the last word in wishful thinking.
"You don't have to chase everything just because a few guys are scoring better," he said. "You just have to let a round mature, wait for your opportunities to come. When conditions are so benign, they will."
In the high wind, there was simply nothing to exploit but his determination to stay in the tournament, however far that left him behind Louis Oosthuizen, and if it was attrition it had moments which brought out some of the best of the Tiger's nerve. He saved par brilliantly after seeing his tee shot at the par-three eighth blown off course, then rolling into the teeth of a sustained gust a long putt which stopped eight feet away. Woods drilled in in the saver and produced a karate chop of satisfaction. At one point 95 per cent of the field had failed to maintain par but if the Tiger was among them it was only by the smallest margin. He closed the gap by the ninth hole, scoring his second birdie to wipe away the bludgeoning of the spirit that had come on the first two.
The Tiger's body language was now infused with a conviction that went utterly missing when his estranged wife Elen flew into Turnberry last year, an arrival that seemed to coincide with her husband's sudden, absolute failure to remember how to play the game. He went from one bad shot to another in that crisis but yesterday there was no inclination to lose his grip on either his nerve or his clubs. Yes, it was a battle and there were times when he seemed to be in danger of losing it, but each time a crisis came he fought it off.
It happened again at the 10th when he pushed for another birdie. It didn't come but in the circumstances it was another encouraging sign. Unlike that time at Carnoustie, there could be little speculation that a white flag lay at the bottom of his bag.
There was confirmation when he parred the Road Hole and then powered his drive beyond the Valley of Sin. The Tiger remains alive, and dangerously so.
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