HOYLAKE, England — When he stepped off the second green Thursday morning — a poor fairway shot at the first and a three-putt on No. 2 just behind him — Tiger Woods’s return to major championship play looked every bit to be a struggle. Royal Liverpool Golf Club bathed in the sun and nothing more than a light breeze, there for the taking, and at the moment it appeared Woods would allow everyone else to take it while he stood by, idling in his recovery from back surgery.
But over the ensuing four hours, more than a few glimpses of the old Woods appeared.
“It wasn’t that long ago,” Woods said afterward, as defiant as ever. “I won five times last year.”
But on a major stage, this has been lacking. Woods’s 3-under-par 69 in the first round of the British Open wasn’t in the class of Rory McIlroy’s bogey-free 66, also in the morning wave. But it was enough to send some ripples through the galleries along the River Dee.
“It felt good to be back out competing again,” Woods said. “It wasn’t exactly the greatest of starts.”
Yet given the circumstances — 5 under over his final four holes — it was a solid finish. Woods missed both the Masters and the U.S. Open after his March 31 back surgery, and he arrived here with only two competitive rounds since March 9 — 74-75 to miss the cut at the Quicken Loans National last month at Congressional Country Club.
Yet when that performance, poor by his standards, was over, he declared himself encouraged because his back came through unscathed. Most of his complete package was there Thursday, when he hit just one driver, at the par-5 16th, and overcame his squirrely start with a steady, calm approach.
“At Congressional, I made some just terrible mistakes mentally,” Woods said. “My decisions weren’t crisp. I wasn’t decisive enough. Today was totally different, and consequently I shot a better score.”
There were several moments when Woods’s round turned, the first coming at the par-4 fourth. This one won’t show up on your scorecard as something special, but it was the first glimmer of something that used to be a constant for Woods. After putting his approach through the green, he made a poor putt up the hill.
“I hit that putt in practice rounds,” Woods said, “and I know it’s slower.”
That left eight feet for par, precisely the kind of momentum-sustainer he used to make in his sleep. Here, a miss would have him 3 over through four holes. Instead, he drained it.
“I buried that one,” Woods said. “It was nice.”
And his round turned around.
“I felt like even though I was 2 over through two, I still had four par 4s to go,” Woods said. “I still had a couple other short holes, and if I could just play those holes well and play the tough holes even par, I’d be somewhere under par.”
That par-saver set up a birdie of the par-5 fourth, and a bit of a plod. When he won here in 2006, he mastered the par 5s, playing them in 14 under for the week. But he couldn’t birdie the 10th, and when his approach at the par-4 11th fell into a swale to the front right of the green, it looked as if he wouldn’t get anything going.
His ball was up against the fringe. “It was a tough little putt,” he said. But he hit down on it, and it came out perfectly. That it went in for birdie to get to even par was a bonus, and he pumped his fist because of it.
Here, then, was something Woods hasn’t had all season: momentum. He hit a beautiful 6-iron approach at the 12th to five feet, and that birdie got him under par in a tournament for the first time since March, when he entered the final round at Doral 1 under — and then shot a final-round 78, clearly hampered by his back. Thursday, his 6-iron at the par-3 13th sailed pin-high, eight feet right of the flag, and suddenly, he had three birdies in a row.
“I knew I could do it,” Woods said.
This did not, really, give him a sniff of the lead. McIlroy was playing two groups behind, and playing flawlessly, as he has done in so many first rounds this year. He birdied three of the four par 5s, and when he got to the clubhouse at 6 under, he had a 1-shot lead over Italy’s Matteo Manassero, and a two-shot advantage over a large group of 68s that included Italy’s Molinari brothers, Eduardo and Francesco, as well as American Jim Furyk and Spaniard Sergio Garcia.
“Today was just a real solid round of golf,” McIlroy said.
Woods’s round stalled a bit when he bogeyed 14, but he bounced back with a 12-footer for birdie at 15 — giving him five birdies in six holes — and parred out to sit three back, tied with Rickie Fowler and others.
“Guys aren’t going to go really low here,” Woods said. “We’re gonna be bunched. . . . That’s kind of the way this championship is going to unfold, I think.”
True enough, and that’s still with half the field on the course. The late starters included defending champion Phil Mickelson and Australia’s Adam Scott, the top-ranked player in the world.