A month after failing to make the cut at the US Open, Tiger Woods opened with a 5-under-par 67 at the British Open on Thursday. The defending champion was only one shot behind the surprising leader, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
Woods sprayed his first drive into the wispy rough. He needed two swings to escape one of those feared pot bunkers. He knocked his ball onto a dusty path alongside the fairway and wound up behind a tall, wooden signpost.
Errant shots aside, Woods positioned himself to contend for another British Open championship. No need to worry about missing the cut this time.
For much of the day, Woods showed signs of frustration. He jerked his club behind his head after one wayward shot, stopping just short of slamming it down. He gritted his teeth. He muttered under his breath.
But the ending was pure Tiger. He reached the green of the 565-yard hole with a couple of iron shots, curled in a 25-foot putt for eagle and pumped his fist emphatically.
Woods was tied for second with Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, England's Anthony Wall and Greg Owen, and Japan's Keiichiro Fukabori.
Every European at the top of the leader board would like to be the one to break the continent's streak of futility in the majors. Scotland's Paul Lawrie was the last Euro to win one, seven long years ago in this very event.
That's an especially grating drought for a group that has dominated the US in the Ryder Cup. But it's too soon for anyone to think about clearing a spot on the mantel for the claret jug.
On a warm, sunny day made for going low; the crowded leader board featured an assortment of big names and unknowns.
Phil Mickelson bounced back from the debacle at Winged Foot to shoot a solid 69 that could have been even better. One shot better than Lefty was a large pack that included 2002 champion Ernie Els, major winners Mike Weir and Jim Furyk, US Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman, and Sergio Garcia, still seeking his first major title.
Mickelson was 4 under at the turn but struggled a bit down the stretch, failing to take advantage of the last two par 5s. Still, it was an encouraging start after the US Open, where he made double bogey on the final hole when a par would have been good enough for his third straight major title.
"I've got to execute better," Mickelson said. "The course is playing about as nice as it could."
The most awaited group of the day teed off in the afternoon with Woods and three-time winner Nick Faldo, whose sour relationship warmed up a bit when they shook hands on the practice range on Wednesday.
Their highly anticipated duel wasn't much of one. Faldo shot 77 and will need a very low round Friday just to make it to the weekend.
Since turning pro, Woods had never missed a cut in a major until he shot back-to-back 76s at Winged Foot. He got off to another ominous start, knocking his opening shot into the rough - despite using an iron for better control - and wound up making bogey in mild conditions rarely seen on a seaside links.
Overnight rains softened the brownish, rock-hard course, and the breeze off the Irish Sea didn't pick up until late in the afternoon. Even then, it hardly felt like British Open.
For Woods, there were more ugly shots to come despite the benign weather. His ball plugged in the sand next to the green at No. 10, and his first attempt to get out caught the sodden lip and ricocheted back into the deep bunker. But he knocked his second attempt next to the hole and saved par.
At the 11th, Woods drove behind a signpost on the right side of the fairway. The marshals attempted to yank it out of the dirt, but it wouldn't come lose. So Woods simply hit around it and put the ball to 10 feet, sinking the putt for a birdie.
He finally found the fairway at No. 16 - only it was the adjacent one at 17. He still managed to reach the edge of the green (the 17th, that is) and made a two-putt birdie.
McDowell's six-birdie, no-bogey round set a course record for the Open at Royal Liverpool. Of course, this is the first time since 1967 that the oldest of the four majors has been held near the hometown of the Beatles.
Still, it was a stunning performance by a golfer who said he got a swing tip from a fan in a local pub the night before and found that it actually worked.
"If you're watching," McDowell quipped for TV cameras, "I'll see you on the range at 7 o'clock in the morning." Owen is a PGA Tour regular best known for blowing a final-round lead at Bay Hill this year.
He three-putted from 3 feet on the next-to-last hole to give away a seemingly certain win. "It still hurts now even thinking about it," he said. Wall is playing only his second Open, having tied for 46th at Royal St. George's in 2003, and his lone European Tour victory came six years ago.
But the 31-year-old Londoner has been playing well this season with a few runner-ups finishes on the European Tour. Afterward, he munched on a baguette and insisted he wasn't all that surprised to be near the top of the leader board.
"I don't see why not," he said. "I've been playing well. You need some luck. That's the main thing. And here I am."