If you want to know what it means to have Tiger Woods back and playing at the 143rd Open Championship, then the first tee at Royal Liverpool yesterday was a pretty good place to start.
Sundays before any major are usually venues of tranquillity before the madness descends.
When world No 1 Adam Scott walked down the opening hole, there were precisely zero spectators accompanying him.
Contrast that scene with the one less than an hour later when the masses appeared from nowhere as Tiger, dressed in Seve blue, made his entrance and the week heard its first guttural roar: ‘Welcome back, Tiger!’
By the time he got to the fourth hole, there must have been 3 000 spectators happily following his every stroke, many reliving the days spent watching his masterclass here in 2006 when he gave one of the finest demonstrations of links golf of all time.
Practically everyone else in the field will not have 3 000 people walking around with them next Sunday, never mind this one.
After disappointing attendance figures at Muirfield last year, it must have gladdened the hearts of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to see so many people. More than 230 000 crammed into Hoylake last time, and while there won’t be that many this week — there was the novelty element of it being the first Open to be staged there since 1967 — you can see why they’re hoping the 200,000 barrier will be broken.
What’s clear already is that Woods’s strategy will not be far removed from the one he adopted in 2006, when he used only one driver all week. The years might have taken a tumultuous toll, from the series of injuries to the divorce to the sex scandal to the blessing of two healthy kids. But off many of the tees it will all start this week like it did back then, with a two-iron ‘stinger’ to take the fairway bunkers out of play.
The first hole was playing into a decent breeze yesterday, fortifying it with sufficient length to lure practically everyone into striking some kind of metal wood. Not Woods. He reached straight for the club he might well have worn out by the end of the tournament.
How did the swing look, in only Tiger’s second tournament back after four months out following back surgery? Really good, actually. He was swinging about three-quarter pace and looked all the better for it. Woods said he was glad to be back, and sounded it. Believe it or not, he couldn’t keep a smile off his face. ‘Taking baby steps over the past four months has paid off and now I am at that point where I can do what I want,’ he beamed.
Alongside him was world No 5 Matt Kuchar. The American was candid enough to admit he thought Tiger ‘crazy’ to make his comeback two weeks ago when he missed the halfway cut comfortably in his own tournament and was clearly half-fit.
‘Tiger said he wanted to test it. Now he’s in the recovery phase and he said he’s getting up the next day after playing and feeling good,’ said Kuchar.
The pair had a match going and the personable Kuchar thought it was advantage to him with Woods 160 yards away in two on the par five 18th. ‘Then he stuffed it in close there, so that was a bit of a bummer, but more like the Tiger we’re used to seeing,’ he said, smiling.
Can Tiger contend? ‘Absolutely I think he could,’ said Kuchar. ‘The British Open, the knowledge he has, the skill set he has…yeah, definitely he could contend. He was impressive.’
Woods joked around on a number of occasions with the third member of his group, big-hitting American Gary Woodland. Not such a big hitter on this occasion, mind, since the only clubs he was carrying were a sand wedge and a putter. The other 12? ‘Stuck in some airport,’ he said. ‘The airline lost my clubs and my luggage.’ It happens to them too, then.
Woods arrived on Saturday afternoon and is such a creature of habit that he teed off within 10 minutes or so of the time he started his preparations in 2006. There doesn’t seem to be any realistic hope he will end the week with a similar result, but it is surely time the analysts laid off with their negative carping. A typical wail is: Why didn’t he get competitive reps in at the Scottish Open last week? When you think most people didn’t believe we would see him again until late in the year, isn’t it acceptable to ease his way back into the heat of competition?
Hoylake looks a lot different to the parched beauty we saw in 2006 but this is down to improved agronomy techniques rather than the weather. In fact, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson is hopeful it will play almost as fast-running as it did back then come Thursday, while being green instead of brown.
Good news for Tiger, then, and his stinger. Good news for golf. – Daily Mail