HOYLAKE, England – On a warm, sun-drenched morning at Royal Liverpool, Tiger Woods appeared to burn away the rust. His next step is to contend.
Playing in his first major of the season and second event following back surgery in March, Woods rebounded from a bogey-bogey start with five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine. He signed for a three-under 69, three shots behind clubhouse leader Rory McIlroy.
“I felt good about a lot of things I did out there today,” Woods said. “Especially coming back after that start I had today, to fight myself back into the championship, I feel pretty good about it.”
Woods bogeyed the treacherous opening hole, likely to play as one of the toughest of the week, after facing a tricky bunker shot from a downhill lie. He seemed uneasy. While waiting on playing partners Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson on the green, Woods went to the side and took about 10 practice strokes. Then he three-putted the 2nd hole for another bogey. He spent other long moments between shots pantomiming full swings.
He made a poor swing with an iron off the par-5 5th tee but got away with it (links golf!), his ball skidding to a stop on the left side of the fairway. Woods ripped an iron just short of the green, then got up-and-down for his first birdie.
That seemed to get him going.
He lipped out birdie putts on the 8th and 10th holes, but Woods’s luck changed on the 11th. After missing the green to the right with his approach, he putted up a slope and in from about 20 feet for an unlikely birdie. He punctuated it with the first fist pump of his major season.
“I put [the ball] back in my stance, picked it straight up and hit down on it,” Woods said of the putt. “I was able to get through there and on the green and it went in.”
The hole-out may have also helped flip the switch from Rusty Tiger to Vintage Tiger.
On his approach shot to the par-4 12th, Woods gave his 6-iron a twirl after impact (vintage Tiger) before his ball settled to six feet. As he strolled to the green, an over-served Brit hollered, “Smile, Tiger!” but Woods had his blinders on (vintage Tiger). He knocked in the putt for a second straight birdie (more vintage).
His only back-nine misstep came at par-4 14th, where he missed the fairway left. His blind approach shot found the right rough, and he chipped away from an unfriendly pin. But he bounced backed with a solid 7-iron at the par-3 15th, and after he struck the ensuing 15-foot putt, he began walking to the cup a beat before the ball toppled into hole. We’ve seen that before, too.
When Woods won at Hoylake in 2006, he famously hit just one driver all week while bludgeoning the baked course with brilliant iron play. But that was then. On Thursday he hit nothing but irons for the first seven holes and had little to show for it. He hit his first fairway wood on No. 8 and used it again on 10, 12, 14 and 18. He hit his lone driver on the par-5 16th and narrowly avoided a pot bunker down the left side. He made 4 for his sixth and final birdie of the day.
“With the forecast the next couple of days supposed to be iffy, guys aren't going to go really low here. We're going to be bunched,” Woods said. “You look at the scores, there's a ton of players between two and four under par. And that's kind of the way this championship, I think, is going to unfold.”