HOYLAKE, England – The comparisons were always going to be misguided, if not wildly unfair.
This was always going to be a different course than the one that hosted the great Dust Open of 2006. It was, observers concluded, a different swing, a different time, a different Tiger than the one who surgically picked the place apart on his way to his third claret jug eight years ago.
Despite that reasoning, those comparisons were sure to come. It is always the burden that when you author a masterpiece fans eagerly await a sequel that is every bit as captivating no matter how outrageous those expectations may be.
When Tiger Woods bogeyed the first hole early on Thursday at Royal Liverpool the social universe reminded anyone with a wireless connection that he also bogeyed his first hole in ’06, when arguably the best ball-striking week of his career delivered a two-stroke victory.
When he bogeyed the second, however, a chorus of concern could be heard across the Dee Estuary; but slowly, methodically, earnestly, Woods plodded his way back to relevance:
A birdie at the par-5 fifth hole from 8 feet to turn at 1 over was followed by a barrage of five birdies in six holes starting at No. 11.
Maybe this could be like ’06.
Maybe all that talk of getting his “speed” and “explosiveness” back was starting to resonate. Maybe his short week at the Quicken Loans National – where he returned to action following back surgery on March 31 – was little more than a litmus test and not a long-term indication of things to come.
“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,” Woods figured following a 3-under 69 that left him three behind leader Rory McIlroy.
The 143rd Open Championship was always going to be compared to that clinic he put on in ’06 regardless of the reality that he entered the week with just 36 holes under his belt since returning from the DL and is some 11 months removed from his last major start.
But as a glorious morning progressed, his game, and his championship outlook, improved, just like he said it would.
“That's why I’ve been telling you guys it was so important for me to play at Congressional,” Woods said. “The fact that I was able to recover every day, and the fact that I was stronger, more explosive the more days I played. I’m only going to get better from that point.”
When Woods closed his round in increasingly windy conditions, the similarities to his performance in ’06 were eerie.
For the day, Woods hit just one driver, at the par-5 16th hole, the same number he hit for the entire week eight years ago. He found 10 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens in regulation, compared to 11 of 14 and 12 of 18 in ’06. He needed 28 putts, one more than he took on Day 1 the last time he played Hoylake.
That he did all this after playing his first two in 2 over par also echoed of ’06, when he rounded his final 71 holes in 19 under par.
“It felt good to be back out there competing again. It wasn't exactly the greatest of starts,” Woods said.
In fact, the only thing that was missing on Day 1 was a yellow golf course cooked by unseasonably hot conditions to bouncy perfection. But it’s still early.
Woods’ rally began at the 11th hole, where he missed the green right from the middle of the fairway with a wedge in his hand and rolled in a 30-footer from the fringe that prompted a fist pump.
He followed with a 10-footer at the 12th hole, an 8-footer at the 13th hole and a punched 7-iron at No. 15 to 15 feet before nearly making eagle at the 16th hole.
He endured the predictable rub of the green that is as much a part of links golf as fescue and aiming poles when his second at the closing hole found the back of a greenside bunker and he could do no better than par.
He even sounded like he did in ’06.
“I played what the golf course allowed me to play,” he said on Thursday.
Eight years ago after his second round he had a similar take, “It all depends what I feel the golf course gives me,” he said.
But perhaps the most encouraging comparison to ’06 was what Woods did after his round. The world No. 7 signed his card, spoke his piece with the press and bolted for the practice tee for an extended session, an option that wasn’t available before he underwent microdiscectomy.
“I need to get everything a little bit better. That's the case all of the time,” he reasoned.
Much has transpired in the years since the game’s oldest championship was played on the Wirral peninsula, but for Woods Thursday at Hoylake felt like old times.