How late it was, how late. Showcasing a hitherto undetected talent for creating suspense, the R&A went to town stretching out the return of Tiger Woods yesterday.
He didn’t let them down.
Of course, there is another factor likely to have played a part in ensuring Tiger was still battling deep into the Angus gloaming; the needs of American TV.
But then he didn’t let them down either. Not on the front nine at least, which he completed in two under par. But then he got careless. All of a sudden he was finding bunkers with tee shots and leaving birdie putts short.
A slight change in wind direction to south/south east did not help matters and might have left Woods cursing what is, for him, an unusually late tee-off time. The expected hordes followed him out at 3:21pm in the company of Scot Russell Knox, pictured, and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama. But it felt slightly surreal as they arrived at the 18th to be confronted with thinning crowds and empty seats in the stand. Not even Tiger Woods stands between a Scot and his tea.
It was a magnificent scene at the 17th tee as the sun started to dip behind the Sidlaw Hills. The clock showed 7:50pm. A train rattled past in the distance. When Woods said earlier in the week that it “doesn’t get much better” than playing links golf at Carnoustie this is surely what he means. He then managed to make a par. This is more than acceptable at this particular hole, the middle course in a dastardly triumvirate delivering players back to the clubhouse.
Woods didn’t drop a shot over the last three holes, meaning the three bogeys he collected in the previous six holes were particularly frustrating. But an even par 71 keeps him in the hunt and only five shots off the lead. Knox is only two shots worse off thanks partly to ill-timed bogeys at the first and last. He admitted he struggled with the reality of playing alongside Woods. “I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I mean, he’s almost like a mythical figure.”
Woods has certainly resembled a mythical figure in recent years on account of his absence from these occasions. Not since 2015, when his ranking was in the 200s, has he competed at an Open. It meant he was an even hotter ticket than usual for the punters yesterday.
The course, one big frying pan of a place come early afternoon, eagerly awaited Woods’ arrival. He could not have made a bigger stir had he taken a page out of the visa-delayed Jhonattan Vegas’ book and landed near the first tee in a helicopter.
Given 46 groups had already come and gone anticipation had been ratcheted right up. The Open Arms was doing a roaring trade across the way. Let’s just say many were in high spirits by the time Woods strolled across the walkway connecting the practice range to the first tee. Those cheering below seemed to will it to represent a bridge back in time.
The Woods roadshow isn’t quite what it was. It’s a slightly more sanguine enterprise these days; a case of hoping against hope. But he is still far and away the biggest draw. Even a home favourite such as Knox must accept his place. Woods seemed to get a hit from the crowd’s energy. He plugged into the old assurances, the old certainties.
But he didn’t do it in a particularly eye-catching fashion.
He kept his driver in his bag for the most part. He stayed safe with his irons and aimed to plot his way around the course. Even his attire seemed sympathetic to the surrounding terrain and was designed almost to blend in, like camouflage. A sleeveless azure-coloured jersey represented an unusually blue North sea. His light grey trousers matched the washed-out colours of the fairways.
It felt like an Open of old. One, perhaps, from back in Tiger’s pomp. The stoor caused the eyes to sting, as at St Andrews in 2000 or Hoylake in 2006 – both of which events he won. Is it an omen?
“I was asked earlier, does this remind you of Hoylake?” Woods said later. “Hoylake is flat, this is not.”
But he seemed thrilled to be back out competing, even if it’s a slightly patched-up version of the Woods we recall from yore; literally so. Eyebrows were raised when KT tape was spotted on the back of his neck. “It just makes me feel a little more comfortable,” he explained. “I’ve been doing this for years. Braces and bandages, just that this time it’s actually visible.”
Knox is a home favourite but there was little he could do to distinguish himself until a thrilling eagle at the 14th. When he birdied the sixth hole he made a point of raising his ball in his hand to the crowd – or at least for the benefit of those who had had the courtesy to delay their scampering to the seventh tee.
Matsuyama, meanwhile, is a pretty big noise in the Far East. Dressed all in black, he, too, struggled to combat the Tiger effect, finishing with a four-over-75.