Tiger's survival instincts kicking in
We have all been here before. As the first day of the 142nd British Open drew to a close, the name of Tiger Woods sat just off the first page, three strokes from the lead. His round of 69 was the sort of largely competent effort that in the hands of any other player would be described as 'patchy' or 'mixed'.
When Woods is involved, however, all sorts of nefarious spectres present themselves. His very presence in a tournament carries a sense of implied threat. Woods does not merely sit on a leaderboard, he 'lurks', often 'ominously' or 'menacingly'. For as long as he plays the game, you fancy it will be thus. Those memories of Woods tearing a field apart are too strong to be ignored after just a few fallow years.
But what he is yet to show since winning his last Major championship in 2008 is the capacity to raise his game when the situation demands it most. Time and again, Woods has failed to get out of fourth gear.
He is like a cyclist who has proven himself adept at manoeuvring himself to the front of the peloton, but never truly convinces you that he will make the decisive break. Consider his last calendar year in Major championships. There was an opening 73 at Merion last month, an opening 70 at the Masters in April, a 69 at Kiawah Island in August, a 67 at Royal Birkdale this time last year.
All were imputed with the same dripping menace. All provided him with the perfect lead-out to catapult towards the victory line. Each time, he fell short. He may not do the same again, but Woods is no longer the unfettered genius of a decade ago. The days of winning easy are long gone.
There are two points that will encourage Woods. Firstly, his afternoon tee time meant he was dealt the worst of the conditions. By the time evening came, the back nine had been baking in the Muirfield kiln for the entire day. At times, Woods and his playing partner Graeme McDowell (Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 champion and third man in their group, withdrew with a hamstring injury on the ninth hole) appeared to be playing with rubber balls, such was the energy with which they skipped and bounded around.
"It was tough," he said. "The golf course progressively dried out and got more difficult as we played. And I'm very pleased to shoot anything even par or better." Fair or not? "Well, I could see how guys were complaining about it," he said. The other point is that his score masked the sort of start that would have put a flimsier player out of the tournament before the turn.
His day began badly when he took a wrong turn on his way to the putting green and ended up in the media interview area.
But it got worse from there. He took a five-wood off the first tee, shanked it deep into the left rough, played a provisional ball, and failed to do much better second time. He hacked his third into a bunker before, facing the prospect of an opening double, produced a sumptuous up-and-down to escape with bogey.
Another sand save at the third paved the way for a birdie at the fourth from eight feet. At the sixth, however, his approach took a hard bounce and disappeared off the back of the green. His bump and run was just a yard too short, rolling back down into the thick grass near his feet. Again, a double beckoned. But again, Woods' survival instinct kicked in, a 12ft putt from the fringe limiting the damage to one shot. Somehow, improbably, he reached the turn at one-over-par.
At which point he kicked. Three birdies in four holes, the last a wonderful, slippery 20ft putt down the hill at the 13th, put him in the red numbers once more.
After dropping a shot when he putted through the back of the green at the 14th, he nailed two perfect long irons to the par-five 17th to give him two putts for birdie. He starts early this morning, which should suit him a good deal better. Ominous? Menacing? All right, perhaps just a little. (© Daily Telegraph, London)