GULLANE, Scotland – Tiger Woods stood on the first tee Thursday afternoon at Muirfield with a classic look, nattily dressed in black and white, a combo that made him look several years younger.
Woods looked refreshed, appeared confident.
We hadn’t seen him on a golf course in a month, since the final round of the U.S. Open at Merion. It was there where Woods finished in a paltry tie for 33rd place and later we learned a tender elbow would sideline the game’s top draw until this week.
The odds-makers here in unusually warm, sunny Scotland had installed Woods as the tournament favorite, a place Woods has resided for the better part of the last 15 years. It’s a place he’ll likely live for at least the next five.
With so many expectations on Woods’ broad shoulders – both those of this week and a five-year major winless drought – he took a mighty whack off the first tee and promptly snap hooked the ball so badly that it hit a tree and plunged into a heap of wispy hay.
“It was amazing, when I got over that tee shot,” Woods said. “I was, ‘if I hammer it, this 3-wood is in that bunker. So maybe I should take something off it. Maybe I should hit 5-wood.’ Hence I hit a flip hook left and there she goes.”
The game’s most mentally tough player seemed flummoxed from the start.
At that moment you could sense collective gasps. Social media was atwitter with armchair analysts screaming this isn’t going to be his week. Members of the media shouted similar expressions, knowing Woods’ major victories in the past have been collected mostly after getting off to a solid beginning on Day 1.
Woods’ ball was mired so deeply into the left rough that he took an unplayable lie. He blasted the approach right of the green and skillfully got up and down for bogey.
Many of the aforementioned naysayers suddenly thought Woods would win the tournament again, that it was an omen because he turned a likely double bogey into an unlikely bogey.
Over the next 5 hours at Muirfield – a place that looked in dire need of a drink – Woods looked ready to win and prepared to lose. He did not use his driver once, but found fairways often. He putted beautifully at times, including 10 one-putt greens, and putted terribly twice, once when he blew a 10-foot birdie putt 6 feet past the hole, another when he putted the ball off the back of the 14th green. He made five birdies and three bogeys. He faced double bogey twice, slayed it both times.
The final tally was 2-under 69 which positions Woods into a ninth-place tie. Leader Zach Johnson shot 66 in easier morning conditions.
“It was tough,” Woods said. “I’m very pleased to shoot anything even par or better.”
“Tiger played phenomenally well for his 2 under par,” said Graeme McDowell, Woods’ playing competitor. “Really ground out well, did what he does best.”
That’s right, Woods grinded, something he has done so many times before but hasn’t seemed to do enough recently at majors.
After birdie on the fourth hole, Woods saved par by making a 6-foot putt on the fifth. The next hole he blew his approach over the back of the green and failed to hit his third onto the green. But he got up and down for a good bogey.
Woods missed a 5-footer for birdie on the eighth hole but rattled off birdies on Nos. 10, 11 and 13. An awkward bunker shot from beside the 12th green that ultimately helped save par was perhaps his best shot of the day.
You get the point. This day was a great test for Woods and he passed, something he will have to continue to do for another 54 holes.
Those rewinding back to the 2006 Open at Hoylake and thinking this week will be similar need to erase the notion. Woods scorched the field that year by positioning the ball where he wished. Muirfield may be as firm and fast as that Hoylake track, but here the rough is thicker and the wind changes more drastically from hole to hole. More danger lurks.
“It was so hard to get the ball close, even lag putt and try to get the ball the right speed,” Woods said. “I tried to keep the ball in front of me as best I could, and hole a putt if I could, if I could keep it below the hole.
“It was very difficult.”
But something that Woods seemed to enjoy on a day many others didn’t.
Sure, it’s been awhile since Woods has won a major, but something about this day felt eerily familiar.