Tiger Woods fights for legacy — great or greatest?
From the minute he swept into view, you knew something was different.
As Tiger Woods strode onto the Carnoustie practice range, pulses of electricity ripped through the stands, shocking the contemplative crowd into life.
Cheers and cries of “C’mon, Tiger” rang out.
Cameras swung around to train their lenses on him, as if they were radars locating an incoming bogey. TV crews jolted to attention, like meerkats on the savannah standing bolt upright at a sign of danger. The other players on the range tried to look casual and act as if he wasn’t there, but they knew.
The man was in town.
By the end of a sun-soaked opening day, he may not have troubled the top of the leaderboard, but the former world No.1, back for the first time since 2015, was still the draw card at the 147th Open Championship. The crowd’s reaction was all the conformation needed.
As it was, Woods carded a level-par 71 to finish five shots adrift of fellow American Kevin Kisner, whose 66 kept him one clear of compatriot Tony Finau and South Africans Erik Van Rooyen and Zander Lombard.
But Woods, without a major for 10 years, played well enough to hint at a career story yet to be finished.
Nothing like a Tiger roar
Stroking practice range balls into the silvery Scottish sky, the two stripes of black tape up the back of his neck for a recent niggle were the only giveaway of the backstory.
The four back operations, including spine fusion surgery last April, and the dark times that scared him to death he wouldn’t grace this stage again.
Down both sides of the first fairway, spectators massed three and four deep, like nothing any of the previous 46 threeballs teeing off in the year’s third major had experienced.
“Is there someone important coming?” asked a marshal in mock surprise.
There were shrieks from the first group of women to see him, then a resounding roar as Woods entered the amphitheatre of stands surrounding the first tee. Even if you can’t see him, you can always make out a Tiger roar.
As the giant clock on the white hotel behind ticked around, the starter announced, “This is game number 47, on the tee from USA, Tiger Woods.”
Woods, in grey trousers with white shirt under light blue tank top, touched the peak of his cap and stepped into the ball.
Phalanx of photographers
He cracked an iron up the sun-scorched fairway, a result of the UK summer heatwave, but immediately reeled away, shielding his eyes from the grass and dust that had exploded under his club.
Local hero Russell Knox, one of his playing partners alongside Japan’s Hideki Matusyama, got a decent cheer, but nothing on the guttural urgings for Woods.
When all three had played, Woods strode off the tee box, lips pursed, game face on, eyes fixed dead ahead.
A sizeable army of media and officials, and a phalanx of photographers set off in pursuit, trailing inside the ropes like a procession of pilgrims.
Mutterings of incredulity and annoyance from the paying punters outside the ropes rippled up the fairway like a wave.
From a perfect lie on a plateau of the hump-backed fairway, Woods fired towards the green. A fat divot flew forward, camera shutters whirred like Gatling guns, a pause, then applause from the vast crowds lounging on the ring of burned-brown dunes surrounding the emerald green.
Soon, Woods settled over his eight-foot putt. All fell silent.
And bang. In it dropped. Birdie. Uproar.
‘Best golfer of all time’
If you didn’t know the narrative of injury and scandal and loss of form and failed returns, you’d think you were watching the game’s preeminent player in his prime, a master of his universe, not a 42-year-old whose dream of a 15th major title seemed dead long ago.
A trademark club twirl followed another striped iron off the second tee. Fans clamored to get a snap of him on their phones — against the rules, of course, but the modern scourge. When Woods last won a major, Twitter was still in its infancy and Instagram had yet to be invented.
A woman tried to explain his legend to her young son who hadn’t seen him in his heyday. “Like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic rolled into one,” she said, clutching at a tennis comparison.
Woods continued on his way, pursued by his band of merry men and women kicking up dust like wildebeests thundering across the plains.
There were moments of magic, flashes of power and precision, displays of grit to save pars and the odd personal rebuke. For 11 holes, at least, it promised more, before he faded in the lengthening shadows of high Scottish summer, finishing just after 8:20 p.m. local time.
“I played better than the score indicates,” a frustrated Woods told reporters afterwards. Striving for a fourth Open title, he added: “I’ve always loved playing this championship. This is how the game should be played.”
The US-based Knox, a three-time Tour winner who clinched the Irish Open two weeks ago, admitted he had been a touch starstruck.
“I mean, it’s Tiger Woods, how would you feel playing with him?” the 33-year-old asked reporters.
“I think he’s the best golfer of all time. He’s definitely the person I looked up to. So getting to play with him is pretty unique.”
He added: “It’s cool playing with Tiger but I’ve got to get over that. I’m here to win, not just enjoy my walk around the course.”
‘Frat house rules’
Meanwhile, Kisner, a two-time PGA Tour winner, had long finished his pacesetting round and amusing the press with stories of how he and his housemates at Carnoustie had been playing soccer every night after the golf.
Not just ordinary housemates either — there was defending champion Jordan Spieth, fellow major winners Justin Thomas, Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson and Jimmy Walker, and fellow American Rickie Fowler. Frat house rules.
The 34-year-old Kisner, the world No.33, has a best Open finish of tied 54th, but he backed himself to stay in contention at Carnoustie, suggesting the fast-running conditions were similar to back home in South Carolina.
“I certainly would like to and hope I can,” said Kisner, who shared Spieth’s plane home following his triumph at Royal Birkdale last year.
“If you don’t believe in yourself out here you’re going to get run over pretty quickly.”
Spieth, who won that remarkable duel with Matt Kuchar last year, admitted to having a “brain fart” on the 15th as he made a double bogey, dropping four shots in the last four holes for a one-over 72.
Ever the optimist, the three-time major champion said: “I’m certainly in a recoverable situation.”
The Woods circus is back in town, but there are plenty of other contenders trying to top the bill.