THERE is something reminiscent of Hoylake about these browning fairways and the hard-baked greens and that could bode well for Tiger Woods, who secured the last of his three Open Championships at the Royal Liverpool venue.
On that final day, Woods broke down in tears as the winning putt dropped, his first major win since his father Earl had passed away. “He enjoyed watching me grind out major wins and this would have brought a smile to his face,” he said back then.
In that case, his dad will have been watching down yesterday with a beaming grin.
After a painstaking opening round at Muirfield, which began with a bogey and ended with a sigh of relief, he sits two under par, just three off the lead, the reward for grinding away on a day when others simply lost the will or lacked the gumption.
Asked in the press conference afterwards if it had been fun, Woods looked incredulous. “It was more of a grind than one of those pro-am, happy-go-lucky days, talking to your playing partner all day.
“There wasn’t a lot of talking out there because we were trying to grind it out on that golf course, and it’s one of those courses where it just got so difficult. And Louis got hurt, Graeme was struggling a little bit, and we were all playing our own games.”
Louis Oosthuizen withdrew before the trio even reached the turn, his hamstring ending any hopes he had of overcoming the testing course layout and repairing the damage already done in his four-over score.
Showing more durability, McDowell was a tortured soul as he mustered just two birdies in reply to two bogeys and two double-bogeys, leaving him four over but far from out of it, he maintains. Especially given the way the conditions altered throughout a day under the searing sun. He is hoping that an early outing today will leave others facing that conundrum in the later tee-offs, perhaps, restoring some balance in the scoring stakes.
“They [the pins] just get so glassy and crispy around the holes,” said the former US Open champion. “That’s the only way you can describe it. You literally can see 300 footprints around the hole from all the players and caddies that had already been out there.
“I couldn’t single out a pin that I thought was unfair. But if you got on the wrong side of them, they could make you look very, very silly. That was kind of the only way to describe them.”
That was the greens, the fairways he described as “fiery”, making it difficult to suss out yardages. In those conditions McDowell described his playing partner’s two-under as impressive.
“The way it’s burning out right now, we’re looking at a Hoylake weekend. I’m playing with the last British Open champion at Hoylake, and he’s pretty surprised at how firm and fast this golf course is already.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what this place looks like in a couple of days time. It’s going to be tough.”
It’s been five years since Woods last won a major and despite four victories and a return to No 1 in the world in 2013, it’s those events where a player of his stature is judged.
Coming off a strained left elbow, there were already niggling doubts about his ability to end the major drought, and those doubts multiplied on the first hole when he sent a ridiculously wayward tee shot into knee deep rough, with only a tree preventing it heading out of bounds. He had to take the drop there and accept the bogey that came his way.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of precision golf which saw him triumph at Hoylake but the way he recovered from then on, offered glimpses of it. Hitting the turn in one over, he responded with four birdies and only one bogey in the back nine to leave him under for the round.
Within that he could cite a couple of delightful bunker shots and greater control from his tee shots and his approaches. It was smart play in such sweltering conditions which contrasted so starkly with his sodden previous appearance at a Muirfield Open.
Woods joked that while it wasn’t quite Florida, there would be plenty red people vacating the course come the end of play.
But while others melted away, their challenge frazzled with only one round gone, he ground away, refusing to give the conditions the satisfaction of claiming another notable scalp.
“As the golf course dried out it got quick,” he agreed, saying he could understand why some guys may have described the course as playing unfairly. “Some of these putts today, I mean, I putted the ball off the green today. And it really wasn’t that bad a putt. Anything that goes four feet by, it’s gone. It was tough.”
But that is the beauty of links golf, he said. And he has mastered those courses before.
“The wind is supposed to come out of the east tomorrow. And it could be cooler, it could be not. It could be warm. You just never know.
“And that’s the thing about links golf, you just don’t know. The wind actually changes with the tide. You’ve just got to be prepared for all of it.
“I mean, this is about as fast as Hoylake was. But there’s knee-high rough here. And plus this golf course changes directions a lot. There’s a lot of different directions, a lot of different shaped shots you have to hit.
“Hoylake was pretty simple in that regard. It didn’t blow as much there. Our scores reflected it.
“We were all pretty low; we were all in the teens, under par. This is a totally different set-up.”
It’s one that players have to adjust to quickly or perish in the heat.