WHEN an American journalist asked Tiger Woods yesterday if it had been like “old times” on the back nine at Royal Liverpool, as he racked up five birdies in six holes and crept on to the Open Championship leaderboard, the world No 7 seemed insulted by the question. “It wasn’t that long ago,” he said, shaking his head in disgust. “I did win five times last year.”
Try telling that to the hordes who descended on his opening round at the Wirral links, hoping to catch a glimpse of his first appearance in a major championship for 11 months. So fevered was the response to his much-hyped return from back surgery in March, it was as though he had been out for four years, not four months.
On a scorching Merseyside day, every possible vantage point, on and off the course, was secured in an effort to sneak a peak of golf’s – maybe even sport’s – most recognisable figure. From makeshift scaffolding in adjoining properties to the seaside perimeter fence through which sunbathers poked their cameras: you name it, they occupied it.
It was a raucous, occasionally unruly, affair. Emboldened by the R&A’s newfound enthusiasm for mobile phones – or, at least, the money-spinning “Open app” that requires them – ringtones reverberated down from the stands and punters clicked their shutters, despite the governing body’s continued ban on the taking of photographs.
One local resident stood at the foot of her back garden, brazenly recording Woods’ approach on her Ipad. Who needs ESPN, the American television company that was broadcasting his every step on a dedicated channel?
You wonder how the Masters and the US Open got along without this circus traipsing around the premises, closely followed by a swarm of the world’s media, some of them carrying only pen and notepads, others kitted out with backpacks, headphones and antennae that twitched in the haze.
However Woods performed, this was theatre. Either he would make a hapless return to the major-championship fold, thereby vindicating those who said that his comeback was premature. Or he would provide the first signs of a possible miracle that would rank alongside his one-legged victory in the 2008 US Open.
While the latter remains a long way off, he was entitled, in the circumstances, to be mighty chuffed with his three-under-par 69. It was only his third competitive round since March, and it started with back-to-back bogeys, his first after he found a greenside bunker, his second courtesy of three putts.
“It wasn’t exactly the greatest of starts, bogeying the first two, especially the second,” said Woods. “That was a sloppy three-putt there. But I’m not going to be the only guy in a 72-hole event to make two bogeys. I just got mine out of the way early.
“It felt good to be back out there competing again. I felt good about a lot of things, especially after the start I had. To fight myself back into the championship…I feel pretty good about that.”
Woods said that there was room for improvement in every department of his game, but deep down, he must have been delighted with this.
Take, for instance, the putt from off the 11th green that faded into the cup (cue fistpump) and the two 6-irons that set up birdies on each of the next two holes.
It is safe to assume that, having overcome the biggest hurdle at Congressional last month, when there were no physical setbacks on his return to action, he is now in a position to kick on.
“I’m only going to get better,” he said. “I’m getting stronger, I’m getting faster, I’m getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again.”
His round was not without flaws. Quite apart from the early dropped shots, there was a pull off the 14th tee – described by some as a “duck hook” – a tee shot that struck a steward and a woeful putt from the edge of the fourth green, which is overlooked by a giant octopus (don’t ask me, ask the online betting company that put it there).
But the real howlers were committed by his playing partners, Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson, who shot 76 and 72 respectively.
The Swede did plenty of good things, but when it was bad, it was awful. His rash putt that raced off the 12th green cost him two shots. Then, when he failed to hack out of rough at the side of the 17th fairway, Stenson snapped the offending club over his knee and calmly handed both halves to his caddie. “The gap wedge might need a bit of love after lunch,” he said.
As for Woods, it wasn’t quite the first-round 67 he produced on his way to victory at Hoylake in 2006, but his return from the turn in 33 strokes was reminiscent of the old Tiger. A sensible bunker shot on 18, executed with one leg out of the sand, spoke also of the patience that will be required if he is to pull it off.
“With the forecast the next couple of days supposed to be iffy, guys aren’t going to go really low here,” he said. “It’s the type of golf course where the scores are going to be bunched. And if you look at the scores, there’s a ton of players between two and four under par.”
He is in the mix, which is more than many expected. If he can hang in there during today’s second round, who knows what could happen over the weekend?