Tiger could’ve lost this Open on his first hole, but his rally turned out to be revealing

July 19, 2013

GULLANE, Scotland — Everything you need to know about Tiger Woods's opening round at the Open — and, indeed, this curious second act to his career — was summed up by how he played the 1st hole at Muirfield on Thursday. The top-ranked player in the world stepped to the tee of the 447-yard par-4 wielding only a five-wood but uncorked a screaming hook that disappeared into the long weeds that frame the fairway. This is of a piece with Woods's career-long 1st-tee jitters; maybe no great player in golf history has hit so many truly horrendous opening drives. Anyway, his ball was quickly encircled by fans and marshals, though a small hillock obscured Woods's view. Without further investigation he loaded up a provisional tee shot. This was a cagey veteran move, giving him a free swing to try to find a quick fix. Whether it is keeping with the spirit of the rules is a topic for another column.

Woods's second tee shot was almost as putrid as the first. Of course, that didn't matter, as his first ball had long since been located. But two swings into this Open we had already plunged back into the familiar psychodrama of Woods's inexplicable shakiness at the majors, which began in August 2009 (see Yang, Y.E.) and has defined the post-hydrant era. This year, Woods was a heavy favorite going into both the Masters and the U.S. Open, but he failed to summon his best golf at either. Pressed for an explanation on the eve of this British Open, he said, "It's just a shot here and there. It's not much. It could happen on the first day, it could happen on the last day. But it's turning that tide and getting the momentum at the right time or capitalizing on an opportunity. That's what you have to do to win major championships."

Woods is prone to oversimplification, a defense mechanism that keeps outsiders from breaching the fortress of his inner self. But his manifold struggles at the majors have made it plain that darker forces are at work, and this played out off the 1st fairway at Muirfield. Woods arrived at his ball — the first, not the superfluous second — and declared the lie to be unplayable. Fair enough, but what came next revealed just how flustered Woods must have been feeling. Rather than call in a nearby rules official to supervise the penalty drop he hurriedly dumped a ball in the rough and played on. The drop wasn't illegal, but it was a touch cavalier. Woods has already perpetuated two epic rules cockups this season — a bad drop in Abu Dhabi that led to a missed cut and the epic screwup that torpedoed his Masters — to say nothing of a hurried drop at the Players Championship that set Twitter aflame. This rush job at Muirfield was a monument to Woods' stubbornness (he is loathe to give his detractors the satisfaction of summoning a rules official) but also evidence that even a 37-year-old legend can get rattled by two bad swings.

After the penalty, Woods slashed his third shot right of the green, into the back edge of a bunker. With his ball on the downslope, a mile from the pin, a round-killing double bogey seemed inevitable. But golf's preeminent grinder summoned an otherworldly bunker shot, leaving only a kick-in to save a crucial bogey. In the space of 20 minutes Woods had revealed more about himself than in a thousand press conferences. Afterward he offered some insight into his thought process on the action-packed 1st hole.

"I mean, it was amazing, when I got over that tee shot, I was (thinking), 'If I hammer it, this 3-wood is in that bunker. So maybe I should take something off it. Maybe I should hit 5-wood,'" he said. "Hence I hit a flip hook left and there she goes. I took an unplayable, hit the shot where I wanted to, hit it right of the hole and I got up and down."

Remarkably, the remaining 17 holes were nearly as eventful: Woods blowing flip-wedges over the green (at the 3rd), Woods having chips roll back to his feet (6th), Woods not touching the hole on three-foot birdie putts (8th). But he kept brawling with a course that was getting more fiery by the minute.

Woods is a complicated character, but his defining trait may be his determination. After turning in one-over 37, he ran in birdie putts at 10 and 11. (The opportunities were set up by typically conservative tee shots that found the fast fairways.) Those searching for an easy metaphor need look no further than the 12th, when Woods played a bunker shot from his knees … and saved par. On the next hole he ran in a gorgeous 30-foot birdie putt that had two or three feet of break. That elicited the Nicklausian raise-the-putter-to-the-heavens treatment and propelled Tiger to two under and into the top 10 of an eclectic leaderboard. The magic ended at the 14th, where Woods putted off the green and had to make a four-footer to save bogey. He got that shot back with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 17th, and after scrambling to save par at the last, he signed for a two-under-par 69, three shots behind Zach Johnson.

Woods's spectacular run in the middle of his round certainly got the attention of playing partner Graeme McDowell, who said, "Tiger played phenomenally well for his 2-under par. Really ground out well, did what he did best"

Woods remains golf's preeminent tactician and his advantages will be magnified with Muirfield on the slippery slope toward Shinnecock-level difficulty. Tiger took the last Open played on such a brown palette, at Hoylake in 2006, and is now well-positioned to end his major championship victory drought, which has entered its sixth year.

But first he needs to learn how to handle the 1st hole.