HOYLAKE, England – The warm ovation Tiger Woods heard walking up the 18th fairway at Royal Liverpool sounded familiar, even if the circumstances were not.
Eight years ago, it was because he was about to win the British Open.
Thursday was because he played.
Woods returned to the majors for the first time in 11 months on Thursday and gave thousands of fans perched along the hillocks what they wanted to see – a three-time Open champion looking as if he has the game to win another one.
He atoned for a bogey-bogey start with five birdies in a six-hole stretch at the end for a 3-under 69. Woods was three shots behind Rory McIlroy after a gorgeous day of sunshine and mild wind along the Irish Sea.
He was neither surprised nor satisfied. It felt like the other 250 rounds he has played in the majors as a pro.
“I knew I could do it,” Woods said. “That’s why I was telling you guys it was so important for me to play at Congressional. The fact that I was able to recover every day, and the fact that I was strong, more explosive the more days I played. … I’m only going to get better from that point.”
Woods had back surgery March 31 that caused him to miss the Masters for the first time, and then the U.S. Open. He returned earlier than he expected at Congressional three weeks ago and missed the cut by four shots. His short game was shabby and he made more mental mistakes than birdies.
The start of this round didn’t look much different.
He missed the green with a 7-iron and drew such a tough lie on the downslope of the pot bunker that he had no chance stopping it anywhere near the pin. The shot went across and off the green, and Woods had to get up-and-down for bogey. Then, he badly misjudged the speed of a long birdie try and three-putted for bogey.
Two holes, 2 over.
Even more disturbing was his shot from behind the fourth green after going long with a wedge. Woods used his putter from 30 feet away and came up 8 feet short.
“I hit that putt in practice rounds and I know it’s slower,” Woods said. “It’s more lush over there. There’s more grain. It’s thicker. I took that into account and still left it 8 feet short. But I buried that one, which was nice.”
Two putts seemed to make a difference in his round. That par putt on No. 4 kept him from going 3 over, and a 30-foot putt for birdie from just off the 11th green appeared to make him swing more freely. The next tee shot with a 3-wood was as good as any swing all day, and it set up a 6-iron into 6 feet for a second straight birdie. It also marked the first time Woods was under par at a tournament since March 9 at Doral, the last one he played before back surgery.
He followed that with a 6-iron that left him 7 feet away for birdie on the par-3 13th. After a bogey set up by a 3-wood into the left rough, Woods answered with a 7-iron on an aggressive line to 15 feet for birdie on the par-3 15th, and then a simple birdie on the par-5 16th.
The 16th hole was the first – and only time – he used driver all day.
By pure numbers, Woods went 71 holes over eight years without using a driver in competition at Hoylake. The only driver he hit in 2006 when he won was on the 16th hole of the opening round. He put that in the adjacent 17th fairway. Royal Liverpool is greener and longer this year, and most players were using a few more drivers.
The one driver he hit made Woods curse. He tugged it left and figured it was headed for a pot bunker.
“I wanted to start it in that first bunker and hit a hard pull-cut,” he said. “And I hit more a pulled straight ball. I didn’t think it was going to miss that bunker.”
He did, and then put his second shot just short of the green and in an easy spot to chip close for birdie.
Woods was tempted to try to squeeze one more birdie out of his round. His second shot went into a pot bunker just left of the green on the par-5 18th. The lie was good, but the back lip of the bunker slightly restricted his swing. He blasted out to 15 feet and took two putts for par.
“I could have gotten a little more greedy,” Woods said. “But there’s really no point.”
It was Thursday. As long as he’s been away, Woods knows as well as anyone there’s still a long way to go.