Tiger Woods always has enjoyed the grandstand finish and his three-wood into four feet here at the final hole yesterday certainly would not seem out of place in his scrapbook of great 18th-hole shots. It was a Tiger classic at the Desert Classic and the resulting eagle turned a miserable day into a satisfactory day.
Still, his first-round 71 was not enough to earn him anything greater than last place in the European Tour's most prestigious three-ball. This was the first time in the Tour's history the top three ranked players in the world had been drawn together and at No 3, Woods lived up to his billing. Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer both shot three-under 69.
They will resume this morning, four off Rory McIlroy's lead. The young Ulsterman revealed his ever-growing maturity in a near-flawless 65 – which put him two ahead of Thomas Aiken and a rejuvenated Sergio Garcia – but appreciated his deeds would be overshadowed by the 12.20 tee-time. No Thursday in Dubai had ever experienced such an atmosphere, with thousands flanking Westwood, Kaymer and Woods and at least 50 media representatives and officials inside the ropes.
With them happened to be a sporting great and two Old Trafford legends. Andy Cole was there, so too Dwight Yorke who accompanied his boyhood friend Brian Lara, the great cricketer who has been in Dubai in his role as batting consultant to Zimbabwe. The two Trinidadians watched Woods get off to a woeful start, missing a four-footer for par on the first and three-putting the fourth. Yorke was concerned at what he believed was a Woods limp. "He seems to be dragging his left leg," said the former striker, doubtless thinking back to the knee reconstruction of 20 months ago.
Woods was later to deny he felt any pain – "just getting old," he explained – but did admit to "putting just terribly" on the front nine. At the turn he was two over, four behind Westwood, three behind Kaymer, and, despite the desert winds which always make life harder for the afternoon starters here, apparently picking up just where he left it on his season opener at Torrey Pines two weeks ago.
It plainly got to Woods. On the eighth tee he launched a trio of F-words, with two children no older than 10 within five yards. So much for the new Tiger. But from nowhere his putting clicked and the smiles came out. "I don't know what happened as I didn't change a thing," he said. "I just suddenly felt comfortable and, boom, started pouring them in."
The first, a 10-footer, went glug, glug on the 10th, a 25-footer followed on the 11th and then another birdie arrived on the 14th. Yet in between came a double-bogey six, after hitting a dreadful approach from inside 150 yards. He made a similar error from even closer on the 17th. "Awful, just awful," he said. "I'm still working on technique and sometimes I'm thinking more about technique than feel."
Sean Foley, his new swing coach, would doubtless have squirmed. The crowd, which by now included Yorke's former deadly-duo partner, Cole, did. But the England man was wise to stick around. Woods' pearler from 254 yards on the 18th was an early contender for shot of the season.
So he skipped in, instead of trudging, and was amenability personified afterwards. "All in all, a positive result," he said, before crooning about those final-hole heroics. "It's interesting, as much as I shaped the drive off the tee from right to left, I shaped the three-wood as much left to right. It was perfect."
Nearby, Westwood was bemoaning his poor bogey finish. After looking so solid all day, he let it slip with a wedge which almost rolled back into the water. "Got disrupted the first time I stepped over it and didn't regain my composure," he said. "There was a lot going on out there. You just accept that when you play with Tiger. It creates a lot of interest and some people have been on a golf course before – and some haven't."
He was more positive about Woods the golfer. "It's not fair to comment on his game, because he's trying to change a lot of things," said the No 1. "But one of the things you always get from Tiger is that he'll grind his backside out there. Just look at that eagle at the last."