Woods turns disaster into mere inconvenience

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Security was redoubled halfway through Tiger Woods' round, but by then the suspicion had to be that the move was designed to protect him from himself.

"Do you think that copper's 'tooled up'?" asked somebody for whom the world's greatest golfer's latest crisis was of passing and slight significance.

But then the gun-spotter may have been right. Five hours after the nightmare of his first-hole triple-bogey, the Tiger's snarl was audible again. Not ear-splitting perhaps - a two-over-par 73 merely kept him in touch with the leaders as the wind blew strongly off the Channel - but there were times when such a score seemed like a prize beyond his dreams.

This was especially so in the mayhem of that first hole which brought the 132nd Open to an acutely embarrassing standstill. It was the scenario of a club hacker whose day-dreaming had suddenly turned terrifyingly ugly.

As the wind began its first serious stirrings, Woods followed Sergio Garcia on to the first tee. He took his driver - unwisely some thought and they were clucking over their wisdom soon enough - and sent the ball approximately 300 yards into rough which might easily have passed for an unkempt section of the Matto Grasso.

For Tiger Woods, getting the ball out of rough is normally a chore rather than an ordeal, but first he needs to find it. He couldn't. Three spotters claimed they saw and heard it land - but that was not the same as pointing to where it lay in the jungle. Woods' playing partners, Garcia and Luke Donald, joined in the search along with their caddies. Spectators shouted "left, left, right, right" in what seemed like a manic reprise of the old television game show, The Golden Shot, after a despairing Woods shouted: "Did you see where it went?" It wasn't his best initiative of the day. The clock wound down and Woods was ferried back to the first tee in a buggy.

End of nightmare? It had been pretty to presume so. Woods picked up his driver again and sent his second tee shot straight into the same patch of rough. We had moved from The Golden Shot to Death Wish, and the Tiger's scowl would have surely earned a nod of admiration from Charles Bronson. Fortunately, this time the landing site was swiftly located. Woods was unlucky when he wielded a wedge in the high grass, overshooting the fairway by 10 yards, but at least he found a patch of rough flattened by television cables. He left his fifth shot 15 feet from the pin, and took two putts. A lesser man might have disappeared, but, of course, Woods spends half his life re-establishing the reality that one man's disaster is another's inconvenience.

So he simply worked his way back into the tournament, producing birdies at the fourth and the 10th to go one-over. It was, he later admitted, joyless work, but then for all his instincts and his skills, a windblown stretch of British coastline will never be his natural habitat. "The wind changes course by 10 degrees and you have a whole different golf course," said the great man.

But that work had to be done, and though there was a serious relapse - a string of three bogeys between the 12th and 14th holes - he came again with 15 and 20 feet birdies on the 15th and 16th holes. The Tiger was simply fighting his way out of a corner and what we would not see for this day at least was the old exhilaration of the man who has changed the face of golf.

Later he admitted to a degree of shock. He had never lost a ball on the first hole of a pro tournament before. It was something that happened to other people. He said: "It was a little disconcerting. The forecaddies [spotters] were telling us where the ball was but unfortunately we couldn't find it. It was very frustrating to get off to a bad start like that but I had to focus and I had 17 more holes to get it back - and at least I got one back.

"It was a real tough round of golf and I'm pleased I hung in there and kept my patience and really grinded. I just had to bear down. When you start off with a triple-bogey you have to tell yourself that there are 17 holes to go, that there is a lot of opportunity to retrieve your position."

That, on the face of it, is precisely what Woods did, and the truth of this was only underlined by the ordeal of the reigning champion,, Ernie Els. As Woods came down the 18th fairway, holding himself together and his face as solemn as a judge's, Els was greeted with a mighty cheer from the gallery. But with the wind drying out the greens, he could generate little momentum and soon enough he was eight over par.

The Tiger, it seemed, had survived the jungle - a salvation that was enhanced when he rocketed a putt across the last green and saw it bounce in and out of the hole, but not violently enough to prevent a comfortable par. "I smiled then," said Woods, "because if it hadn't hit the flag it would probably have gone out of bounds."

That would have brought him full circle on his day of trial, but if this was an escape it was one that brought gratitude rather than noticeable pleasure. Though Woods won the Western Open two weeks ago, he is plainly some way from the peak of his game. The smiles are fashioned rather than born and there is little of that familiar spring in his stride.

It was pointed out to him that he hit a mere three fairways. He was a little defensive. "I hit some bad drives, yes, but I also hit some good ones. These fairways are tough to hit. The important point is that I have kept myself in the tournament." It was an accurate statement, but was it really the truth? The Tiger was certainly alive, but was he well - in the way we have come to expect at a major tournament? It is far too early to say.

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