The Open: Prowling Tiger in hunt after showing glimpse of old self

For a spell, it felt like we had been transported back to 
Before the Fall yesterday, as Tiger Woods’ name loomed large on the leaderboard. How uplifting it must have been for him to walk down the 18th at Royal Lytham and view the guests in the clubhouse welcoming him home after such a profitable day’s work, even if his early surge had trailed off by the time he was lifting his cap to acknowledge the generous applause from the galleries. A three-under-par 67 isn’t to be sniffed at, however.

While the benign conditions helped several others join him on this number, there’s no question Woods is in the hunt. He is also in good company. Major champions litter the top of the leaderboard, although Woods has won more than the rest of them put together. Can he claim another one here? Yesterday saw the man in, err, beige give himself a better-than-fighting chance. It was a glimpse of what life used to be like.

Others have moved on, throwing in their lot with perhaps more glamorous and, let’s face it, more charming characters from a new golf world order. We devoted few who had retained the faith and followed Woods through 18 holes yesterday could return glowing in the knowledge that the four-and-a-half hours had been well-spent. Mark you, Woods started off with a 67 at St Andrews two years ago 
before creeping back into the pack, finishing tied for 23rd place. This is the way this game works. By later this evening, there may be need to re-draft the obituaries that have been penned on more than a few 
occasions during his lost years.

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For now, though, all seems well. The first thing that struck as he returned to competitive action on these shores was just how, well, normal he seemed. There he was, munching on a sandwich, even talking. He’d barely taken his first shot in an Open championship since holing out for a 72 in Fife two years ago before he could be spotted locked in deep conversation with Justin Rose. Their stories are vaguely similar. Both have lost their fathers since turning professional, and both have had to deal with a heap of expectation. Rose, however, has been spared the mid-life crisis, unless his is still to come. He did have a mini-meltdown yesterday, carding a four-over-par 74. Every time you looked up he seemed to be kicking up a cloud of sand in a bunker. Woods, meanwhile, was keeping things together well. Forget any talk of wildness from the tee. He only missed one fairway yesterday.

Reports of his rebirth have not been exaggerated. This was the first chance a British audience has had to gauge whether talk of Woods rediscovering his mojo is wide of the mark or not.

His accuracy off the tee gave him the chance to maintain his form so far this year, and which has seen him win three tournaments. He is currently leading the FedEx Cup rankings in the States.

Yet much has changed in sport since Woods last won a major. Rangers had just contested the Uefa Cup final in Manchester, for one thing. Now they are about to make a debut in something called the Ramsdens Cup. And in golf, there is a new gang of young turks in town, long-haired and snappily dressed. Has Woods been left 
behind?

Not judging by yesterday, he hasn’t. A toilet break after three holes hinted at nerves but the fact he could reflect on four birdies gained from the first nine holes also suggested that if the pulse had been beating a little faster, then it was doing so to good effect.

His birdie at the first replicated his start here in 2001, the last time he began an Open round with a red number. The par three opener is an opportunity to slip immediately into a groove. Rose collected a bogey and spent the rest of the round in a battle with himself. Sergio Garcia, meanwhile, was as madly inconsistent as ever, eventually carding a two-over-par 72.

Woods, though, soon moved into the zone. His initial willingness to converse with others did not last. He sensed something might be happening and retreated into himself.

His caddie, Joe LaCava, was alert to anything which might deflect his paymaster from his purpose. At the seventh, Woods hit a sweet 335-yard drive to the centre of the fairway. As he prepared to take a second shot, the click of camera-phones distracted him. LaCava sighed: “C’mon guys, no cameras out here..please. How many times?”

Woods paused, stepped back and then addressed the ball again. If there was a loss of composure, it didn’t show. Woods collected another birdie to make it four in the first seven holes. It was a swift ascent to outright leader. The smell of breakfast bacon rolls was still in the air.

Woods had been conscious of the challenge from Adam Scott. “I looked up on the board and saw Scotty was going pretty low, and so was everyone else,” he said.

Woods will have wanted to make a few more birdies, but he wasn’t able to match this early form as he came home on the back nine. Chances went a-begging as Woods struggled to make his big putts count. He could, and possibly should, have been six under at the turn.

Birdie putts were left just short at the eighth and ninth holes. On the back nine, almost every hole saw him fail, usually in agonising fashion, to put some real pressure on Scott. Woods could so easily have been leading the pack himself this morning. But, in truth, it might suit him better to be tucked in behind the early pacesetters. At any rate, he didn’t seem too crestfallen at the chances spurned.

“Every putt was right on my line, except for the one I hit on 12,” he said. “But every putt was right on my line, they were dying off the front of the lip. I just needed to hit the putts a little firmer.”

Only at the 15th hole did he seem in danger of spoiling a lot of his good work. His tee-shot ended up in the rough to the left. When he arrived to observe the scene, he grumpily lifted a cable in order to gain a better stance. “Dammit,” he muttered under his breath. Then, having managed to better his position only by a distance of about 60 yards with his second shot, he let out a “goddammit!”. Even his expletives were of the less-offensive variety. Woods is back in control, for now.