Genius is not supposed to sweat and strive, especially when it belongs to Tiger Woods. Genius is supposed to come on a breeze, sudden and dramatic and forcing the rest of humanity step back in awe.
But it didn't happen like that at Royal Lytham St Annes on the day the world's greatest golfer started the defence of his Open title. Even as the news of an eruption by Colin Montgomerie flashed around the course, it was clear that the prodigy's inspiration had taken the day off. But that, of course, was no reason to hand back the old claret jug. There are various reasons why the 25-year-old American is placed in a category of his own, and genius is merely one of them. There is also resolution and detachment, and cool, endless cool.
That was the combination of factors which came into play when Woods, unlike Montgomerie, a man who seemed to age in Augusta a few years ago when Woods won his first Masters by a distance not much less than the length of Georgia, failed to cut decisively through the wind.
"It meant that what I had to do," said the Tiger inelegantly but with great conviction, "was grind my butt off." As part of the grinding he had to step into bunkers five times on the way to a first-round 71 – which was five times more than when he turned last year's tournament at St Andrews into a four-day celebration of one young man's mastery of the game.
But if such sublime control was elusive yesterday in the strong airs of the Lancashire coast, if sometimes it felt as though a dozen alarm bells were ringing all at the same time, there was no shortage of a champion's instinct for damage control. Woods also admitted, "Sometimes you know when it is not going to run for you. So have you have no choice but to fight, to say, 'I'm sure not going to play myself out of this tournament.'"
At the end of a taut round dabbed rather than irrigated by shots of the highest class, Woods could claim that last achievement, and this was where genius, like a truant schoolboy flushed out of his hiding place, finally managed to get its name on the register.
Woods, having sent his second shot into a bunker guarding the 18th green, walked to the sand with some apprehension, knowing that a last-hole bogey would have brought a night of clammy introspection. Instead, Woods' sand wedge dropped like a feather barely a foot from the flag. The great gallery, which had felt up to that exquisite moment a little as through it had been gawping at a great tenor who was doing no more than a few scales, at last produced a full-throated roar, and Woods saved his par. Said Woods: "It wasn't a great round and I didn't feel too great, but I stayed alive. I told myself to hang on, stay in the tournament – and that's what I pulled off. It was very important to say, 'hey, I'm still around.'
"I did not have a problem with the wind, but I really did not feel I could hit the golf ball consistently the right way. I hit the ball intermittently well; it is just that I could not continue it through the entire round and get into the flow and rhythm of hitting good shots."
Woods' survival kit, he said, was pretty basic. "You play one shot at a time. You can't get into that kind of thinking that you are in a defensive mode, I always think that is kind of pessimistic thinking. You need to go out there and really grind away at it, play one shot at a time, give it your all and know that there are certain sides of the flags and fairways where you need to put the ball – and you better be sure you put the ball in there."
Such agonising seemed a long way away when Woods launched himself at the defence of his title with a perfectly imperious touch on the 206-yard first hole. He sent a seven-iron tee shot to 15 feet, and then smoothly drilled the putt for birdie. But after a couple of easy pars, the Tiger found himself on a new agenda. No longer burning so brightly, he drove into the right bunker on the 392-yard fourth hole, and struggled home for a bogey.
On the back nine he made two bogeys and two birdies; he was gripped by a phenomenon from a planet with which he wasn't too familiar; it was something called mediocrity. The visits to the sand were the punctuation marks of his struggle. Woods, asked if his recovery shots from the bunkers had been the key to his survival, said: "I was up on the face of the bunker on 11 pretty good, and just getting out was a task; it went 15 feet past the hole. But I was happy, you know, because at least I had got out of the bunker and if it hits the lip and comes back to my footprint I am in real trouble. You could spend a day getting out of there.
"The big thing is that at the end of a tough day, when I was unhappy at the way I was hitting the ball, I kept a double-bogey off the card, I didn't let anything get on top of me. I really think I can be pleased with that. There is still a lot of golf left."
The Tiger insisted he was satisfied at the end of his turbulent day at the office. Maybe he felt a little mauled, but you can't always carve your way through and then stop the wind. Being a champion isn't always just about playing well. There are days when you simply have to hang on. "At least I kept myself in there. Sometimes you have to gut it out and just get round there. You just have to persevere," he said.
At one point he described the failure of a shot. He had, he said, attempted to "ride the wind." It was a line hard to get out of your on head on a day when the Tiger just couldn't get off the ground.Reuse content