HOYLAKE, England – Rust? What rust?
Tiger Woods didn’t look corroded in the least, after bogeys on the first two holes anyway. Rather he looked comfortable and dangerous in shooting 3-under 69 in the Open Championship first round Thursday.
Woods missed the cut by four strokes at the Quicken Loans National three weeks ago in his first tournament back from March 31 microdiscectomy. That raised the question of how ready he would be for his first major championship round in 339 days.
He was ready. You might be surprised. He wasn’t.
“Well, I knew I could do it,” the 14-time major winner said after finishing three strokes off Rory McIlroy’s opening lead. “That’s why I was telling you guys it was so important for me to play at Congressional. I’m getting stronger, I’m getting faster, I’m getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again. Those are all positive things.”
Nothing was more positive than the fact he made five birdies in six holes, Nos. 11-16, at Royal Liverpool. His reaction to a question about that streak signified his high expectation.
Asked if the run made it seem like old times, Woods said, “It wasn’t that long ago. I did win five times last year.” Then he rolled his eyes and shook his head. The dismissive body language seemed to say something like: I might have been away, but I’m still Tiger Woods and I still have it and my expectations haven’t changed.
For certain, Woods was among the many who took advantage of ideal scoring conditions on a warm, sunny day mostly with light wind. He looked good in hitting 14 greens in regulations and 10 of 14 fairways (two drives just missed) and taking 28 putts.
“I felt good about a lot of things I did out there today,” said Woods, who still undergoes regular soft-tissue treatment. “Especially coming back after that start. To fight myself back into the championship, I felt pretty good about it.”
He used driver only once all week in winning the 2006 Open here. Thursday off the tee, he hit five 3-woods and one driver, the latter finding the fairway at the par-5 16th and leading to an up-and-down birdie.
Woods said he needs to improve all aspects of his game, as usual, but he hardly resembled the struggling player who shot 74-75 at Congressional in his return from back surgery.
“At Congressional I made just some terrible mistakes mentally,” he said. “My decisions weren’t very crisp and I wasn’t decisive enough. Today was totally different.”
Observers probably weren’t so sure based on his bogey-bogey start. He “stuck a 7-iron in the ground” and found a bad lie in a right greenside bunker at the first, leaving him no chance to get the ball close. Then he three-putted from about 60 feet at No. 2, missing from 6 feet. (He also bogeyed his first hole in 2006, but had only two bogeys in his first 37 holes then.)
He certainly would have taken 69 at that point, if not before the round as well. What’s more, he looked like he might drop another shot after tugging a wedge at the 372-yard fourth. But he made an important 7-foot par save after coming up short and then birdied the par-5 fifth from 8 feet.
His hot streak began right after he missed a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-5 10th. He sank a 30-footer from a few feet off the green at the short, par-4 11th, punctuating with a little fist pump we haven’t seen in a long while. He called that a “tough” putt because there was a clump of grass behind his ball, leading him to pick up the putter head quickly. Then he hit terrific 6-iron shots in birdieing the difficult 12th from 8 feet and the 194-yard 13th from 8.
After tugging a 3-wood into the left rough and bogeying 14, he converted an uphill 15-footer for birdie at next and chipped stiff at the long 16th. Woods got a break when his iron tee shot at 17 hit a marshal in the head on one bounce, keeping the ball from going farther into the right rough.
Woods also might have gotten a break with regard to his draw of playing Thursday morning and Friday afternoon. The forecast calls for showers and 15-20 mph wind with gusts to 25-30 in the morning, then a decrease to 10-15. (Then heavy rain and strong wind is expected Saturday.)
He didn’t sound like someone fortunate, though, when talking about being distracted by cellular telephones and cameras. He backed away from his second shot at 18, he said, “because people were taking pictures.”
“We were backing off a lot of shots and a lot of people were moving around,” he said. “It was tough. … Unfortunately people just don’t put their phones on silent or some of the professional guys were getting on the trigger a little early.”
Not long after Woods said that, Open executive director Johnnie Cole-Hamilton issued a statement urging spectators to keep their phones on silent and reminding them photographs on tournament days are not permitted.
In other words, not only is Woods’ game back, his clout remains considerable.