GULLANE, England, July 18 – “Nice shot,” a girl screamed without knowing if she was right or wrong. She was wrong. The ball curled to the right of the first hole, hit a lonely tree and plunged into the longest grass available. Welcome to the 2013 British Open Tiger Woods.
The world number one played a provisional. It ended up in a similar spot. He needn’t have bothered. The original ball had been found and the news wasn’t good. Woods declared it unplayable the moment he saw it.
Many players might have disintegrated at this point and carded a double bogey or worse. Not Woods, not today.
Showing no sign of pain from the nagging elbow injury that thwarted his chances at the US Open last month, he made great contact from the knee-high rough and worked his ball up to the greenside bunker. A deft touch later and he was up and down for a bogey.
The usual circus accompanied Woods around Muirfield. Cameramen on fairways in segways, ludicrous screams from the galleries every time he hit a tee shot, photographers clicking early just when players are about to strike the ball.
But Woods was unflappable.
He found himself in a cramped bunker position on three but played a super shot to gimme range.
The crowd recognised it was a special shot from a special player. Woods himself couldn’t conceal his pride as he stepped out of the sand, doffing his cap and acknowledging the applause with his well-practiced hand gesture.
After an intense first hour, Woods released the pressure with his first birdie, on the par three fourth.
For the first time, he actually looked like he might be enjoying himself out there. He took a snack out of his bag, munched it.
After a decent drive on five, he strolled down the fairway chatting away happily to playing partner Graeme McDowell.
But Muirfield had not thrown everything at Woods yet, not by a long shot.
If Woods remains in contention until the bitter end at this year’s Open he can look back to the sixth hole on the opening day and thank his mental fortitude.
His tee shot found position A on the fairway next to McDowell. His approach looked on the number but it landed hard, bounced high and started rolling.
“Stop! Stop damn it!” Woods implored. Trouble lurked back there and he knew it.
The chip shot Woods faced was a shocker. He was in the rough, the bank was steep and the pin was perched only eight feet over the top, on a downslope.
A collective groan came from the packed stands when his first attempt rolled back down the bank and found even heavier rough.
Woods played it fearlessly again, knowing if he hit it too hard it would run miles past and leave him a long bogey putt. This time he was a fraction too soft and he was fortunate that it held onto the crest of the green.
The eight foot downhiller may be one of the best bogey putts he has holed in a while. As on the first he could have been staring at double or triple but walked off with just a five.
Woods displayed enormous grit during this opening round. It may not have been pretty. He certainly didn’t make it look easy. But time and time again in similar situations where others were folding, he dug deep and limited the damage.
With birdies on 10 and 11 he climbed into the red for the first time. On 12 he found himself right up against the front left edge. With no stance he put one knee out, the other leg in and smashed it out to 10 feet to give himself a chance of par, which he duly converted.
After trading a birdie and a bogey on 13 and 14, he hit a lovely long iron into the par five 17th to set up an eagle chance. The putt drifted past but it was a tap in birdie.
After eking out a typically hard-fought par on the last, Woods carded a very respectable two under par 69 to be just three off the lead. His 32 on the back nine was the equal best of the day.