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Gritty Tiger shows teeth

IF it is true, as we are so frequently told, that sport is just another mirror of life, it was maybe appropriate that the first reflection of Tiger Woods here yesterday was seriously cracked.

What he gave us was something deeply flawed but also at times quite jewel-like. It shone in the Georgian sunshine with the promise he has been pursuing with growing confidence in the last few weeks.

Again he was responding to the lure of his survival as the most potent force in golf – and once more he was as good as the claim he repeated on Twitter on the eve of the 76th instalment of the Masters tournament he once not so much dominated as engulfed.

“I’m ready,” Woods announced to the world without quite specifying in what area he was most prepared.

We didn’t have to speculate too long. Plainly the Tiger was ready to fight, willing to take the blows and grow a little stronger at some seriously bruised places. But if the spirit was strong enough, there were the most serious problems of technique. Over the first nine, which he finished at an encouraging one under, he landed on just two fairways. This was not the serene return to the centre of the golfing universe so many had anticipated.

It was the game’s version of streetfighting and these days it is a desperate business with which the Tiger is required to busy himself in a way that could never have been imagined before his game and his life began to unravel two-and-a-half years ago.

If he was to embrace himself in this tournament which he last won seven years ago, it would only be by the equivalent of house-to-house fighting, and on the first holes there was a |little shock at the shortfall between good, aggressive intentions and workable technique.

But if Woods was being invited to let go of his highest ambitions, it was

one that was rejected with a slowly growing force. The first clear evidence of this came at the treacherously sloping third green. There, the Tiger went one under when he might easily have already been two shots adrift. This was a case of superior damage control through a start which even by his own haphazard standards on a first day here was reckless.

Certainly it revealed a disturbing gap between the rhapsodies of praise for his new swing coach, Sean Foley, and a performance on the first and second tees which seemed programmed more than anything else to bring on a nervous breakdown.

The Tiger’s driver looked about as refined as a blunderbuss as he hooked hugely left on both occasions. His opening shot might well have been improved upon by the the spright-liest of the ceremonial starters, Gary Player. The old boy, who has three Green Jackets back home in South Africa, would at least have kept it straight. After receiving the most animated greeting of the day, the Tiger snap-hooked his drive quite violently. He was already wincing before the sickening sound of the ball crashing against timber.

ROAR

It was even worse at the par-five second, when another hook landed in a creek and required a penalty drop. On both occasions the Tiger’s body language was less than triumphant – but nor was it offering a small phrase of defeat. Indeed, par was retrieved on both occasions and when he went one under at the third a roar of encouragement raced across the course.

The Tiger’s celebration was relatively muted but then it was true that if this was a pivotal battle in his attempt to take his career back to something like its old levels, these were no more than the opening shots. The Tiger had been hit, no doubt, but already he had reason to believe that he had survived the worst possibilities of the wild opening.

There was another sickening mishap on the seventh when he hooked again and narrowly missed a bunker. His expression was filled with self-disgust and this deepened when his chip from the fringe could not prevent his first bogey. That was not where he believed he was heading after surviving the threat of an outward half which might easily have rivalled the one which came on the opening day of his first triumph here 15 years ago.

Then he rocketed to 40, a potential disaster that required an astonishing touch which retrieved six shots on the back nine. That is the kind of surge which until not so long ago was the trademark of the most overwhelming golfer the game had ever known and yesterday it was, when you considered all that had gone before, perhaps a little much to ask.

Especially, when you recalled his career tendency to labour on the first day, then work seriously to separate the rest of the field from any serious belief. Between 1997 and 2002 it was a formula guaranteed to tear the heart out of the opposition.

Long before the end of yesterday’s round there was the strongest indication that if the Tiger was not totally restored to his old power, if he was still short of the ability to plot his way round this course as if by radar, there was evidence of the old resolve.

On the 10th he produced shots of genuine authority. He played his approach shot quite beautifully, then drilled home the birdie putt with an old master’s touch.

There has to be more than a touch of optimism. Tiger had come close to another serious accident but now he appeared to be striding away from |the danger, a new man, maybe, but carrying plenty of the old menace.


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