ST. ANDREWS, Scotland The big, bold-yellow Open Championship leader board made its first appearance at the top of the grandstands overlooking the first and 18th holes of The Old Course on Monday, just as Tiger Woods filed his official entry for the tournament.
Omen or coincidence? Probably the latter.
Any concern that Woods wouldn't return to St. Andrews, where he won the last two Opens hosted on The Old Course links, was eased. Woods will attempt to become the first player to win three Opens on The Old Course. Doubting that he would show up for the tournament would've seemed ridiculous seven months ago, but the ash cloud of controversy in his personal life, and the neck injury that caused him to withdraw from The Players Championship, made it a legitimate question.
The mood on the first tee of the Old Course on Tuesday was dictated more by the sunny, near-70-degree (with only light wind) weather than the blip of sports news that Woods had entered.
When I arrived in St. Andrews on April 1, before a summer that would include the Open on its 150th birthday, Woods's shot at history loomed large. Over the past several weeks, I poked and prodded anyone who would offer up an opinion on the ever-changing subject of Tiger. Most people I asked more or less disregarded all of the scandal and simply wanted to see him play in July, though they weren't losing sleep over any of it. Tuesday was not much different.
"Yeah, we're relieved," caddie Bob Perks said. "We're glad he's going to play. He's the top golfer in the world."
But I had to explain to a couple of people that Woods had officially entered the tournament, which was revealing. I don't know that I've ever been around sports fans who were more clued in to their sport than St. Andrews golfers, but through it all they were never really worried that Woods wouldn't be here in July. And even if he were absent, well, the Open would still be the Open.
"We all hoped that he would play," said David Joy, golf historian and St. Andrews resident. "He has a chance at creating immortality. But the Open Championship is much bigger than a man. It would be a shame if he wasn't here, but it's still the 150th anniversary of the first Open Championship, and that puts it in a better perspective."
The lack of hoopla, the absence of cheering in the streets upon Woods's entry on Monday, proves Joy's point. If Woods entered, say, The Colonial, downtown Fort Worth would have been buzzing with the news.
This tournament isn't made or broken by one player, as we saw when knee surgery knocked Woods out of the 2008 Open at Royal Birkdale. Padraig Harrington won in Tiger's absence that year after beating a field that included Woods at Carnoustie in 2007.
St. Andrews University student Jamie Moore will graduate in June but plans to stay around for the Open in July.
"Yeah, I would be disappointed, but I would still go," Moore said of the prospect of an Open without Woods. "When Tiger didn't play at Birkdale [in 2008], the stands were still full. I still watched on TV.
"Tiger just gives the tournament an X factor. It's like, if a star player were hurt and couldn't play in the Super Bowl, you would still watch it because it's the Super Bowl, but it would be missing something."
Woods will be here, though, which leads to the next-most-asked question of the last six months: How will he be received?
I've probed a little over the last two months to find out if Woods would be heckled or otherwise harassed in St. Andrews. The consensus answer has been "of course not," but upon further review, most agree that the odd lager-fueled patron might spout off. On the whole, though, there's an expectation that fans will show respect for the game as much as for Woods.
"They're quite reserved here," said Perks, the caddie. "They wouldn't want to sully the game."
If Woods comes down the stretch on Sunday with a chance to win the Open, any hecklers will probably be drowned out by exuberant roars from the grandstands. Win or lose, Woods's presence is one more reason for most fans to look forward to July.
"Tiger officially entering just adds another layer to the greater fabric of the occasion," Joy said.