LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – In retrospect it seems worth reporting that Sean Foley, Tiger Woods’ affable swing coach, watched from afar as his man readied for his opening round Thursday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
In the past, conspiracy theorist have interpreted such happenings as some subtle sign that there is trouble brewing in Camp Tiger, but – as Foley recently told your correspondent and Woods’ quick start at the Open Championship proved – there doesn’t seem to be any reason for hand-holding at this point in the proceedings.
Woods began his day with an 11 footer at the par-3 opening hole for birdie, was 4 under through seven holes and signed for a 67 that left him three shots behind clubhouse leader Adam Scott.
It seems Woods and Foley have reached the point in their relationship where, to some degree, there’s nothing left to say, although it also must be reported that after Woods finished his round he met Foley on the practice tee for some post-op work.
But even then there didn’t seem much of a reason for a post-round huddle, unless Foley was going to add a few layers of lead tape to his man’s putter to help counter the slow Lytham greens.
“I'm very pleased with what I did today,” said Woods, who needed just 12 putts to cover his front nine (and just eight to play his first seven frames) but 18 to close his round. “I only hit one putt that was off line. But every putt was right on my start lines. I just needed to hit the putts a little bit harder. These greens are not quick . . . I've got to make that adjustment.”
What won’t be changed is the master plan.
If not for the copious amounts of rain that have deluged the Lancashire coast, and Lytham’s distinct shade of green, viewers across the globe could be forgiven if they tuned in to Thursday’s telecast only to think the networks had lapsed into Open re-runs.
For the day, Woods hit 13 of 14 fairways, just two drivers and 15 of 18 greens in regulation. We liked this show the first time we saw it in 2006 at Royal Liverpool when Woods bunted his way to his last Open victory.
If not for a pulled tee shot at the 15th hole, which resulted in the day’s only bogey, Woods’ Day 1 card could have been a flawless Hoylake II – major championship golf by the numbers.
“I'm playing to spots,” said Woods, who held the outright lead briefly at the seventh hole for the first time in an Open since ’06 at Hoylake. “We’ve had two different winds here that I played. I played practice rounds on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and they were completely different clubs based on the winds. I was just playing to my little sections and I had my game plan to those sections.”
That his plan left him a field goal adrift of the lead seemed of littler concern to Woods, at least not after an ideal morning on the Irish Sea left the ancient links at the mercy of the world’s best.
In perfect conditions, which is to say grey and cloudy yet dry and still, and on a mushy track, which made one wonder if Nike Golf had a pair of soft-spiked “Wellies” in development, Woods meticulously picked his way around Lytham’s 205 bunkers in pursuit of his fourth claret jug and 15th major championship.
It was the kind of performance that, in the past, would have sent the afternoon groups into anxiety attacks given Woods’ record as a front-runner. Although the closer’s shadow doesn’t cast quite as far as it once did, there is still an element of intimidation when his name surfaces on leaderboards.
Just ask your leader Scott, who flirted with a major-championship-record 62 but bogeyed the last.
“He lost it a little bit for a time there, but it’s all relative,” Scott said at Congressional when asked about Woods’ perceived advantage when he is on a leaderboard. “But there’s no question that when he’s up there it’s a little bit more difficult, that’s for sure.”
That Scott continued to distance himself even after Woods birdied the first, his first lead-off birdie at the Open since 2001, is likely a sign of the times combined with a Lytham links that most players agreed was as welcoming as Open layouts come despite a foreboding forecast for Thursday’s opening frame.
Midway through the afternoon 33 players were already under par leaving some wondering if weathermen in the United Kingdom even try to get the forecast correct.
“The forecast hasn't been right all week. Nice job to have, huh?” Woods smiled.
The only man who may have had an easier job on Thursday was Foley, who – like the rest of us – enjoyed much of the action at arm’s length. But in the Canadian’s defense following Woods’ simple show in Round 1 – rip, rifle, repeat – there are only so many ways to say, “nice shot.”