HOYLAKE, England — After he hit his tee shot at the fifth hole — a low, right-leaning, sickly little number with a 2-iron — Tiger Woods clenched his teeth, then stepped to the side of the tee box, into the shadows. There, he pantomimed the swing that hasn’t been seen in a major championship this season.
“It wasn’t exactly the greatest of starts,” Woods said afterward.
But by the time the fifth hole was over, he had his first birdie. And by the time the first round of the British Open was complete, Woods was in a place that used to be so familiar but recently has seemed foreign: Right in the mix. His 3-under-par 69 sat three shots off the lead of Rory McIlroy, but it featured a Woods-like stretch of five birdies in six holes and a little bit of that don’t-forget-who-I-am swagger.
“It wasn’t that long ago,” Woods said. “I did win five times last year.”
None, of course, was a major; that last happened six years ago. But Woods’s performance Thursday at bright, sunny, splendid Royal Liverpool Golf Club led to one simple conclusion: He is not hampered by his back, on which he underwent surgery March 31. And that allowed him to do some old-school Woods things, even though he had just two competitive rounds in the past four months.
“I knew I could do it,” Woods said. And there was that swagger, defiant when cast against recent results. His only two competitive rounds since March 9 were of 74 and 75 in the Quicken Loans National last month at Congressional Country Club, where he missed the cut. Miserable, in other circumstances. Encouraging, he said, in these because he knew his back could handle whatever swing he had to make and that it could recover in time to play the next day. It’s what he needed to know before the British.
“I was able to go out there today and play,” Woods said.
It was worth the wait. He made the turn at 1 over, failed to birdie the par-5 10th and then hit his approach at 11 into a little swale, short and right of the green. “Tough little putt,” Woods said, because his ball was up against a tuft of grass near the edge of the rough.
Yet he used his putter to cover those 30 feet or so, and the ball dropped for birdie — and a till-then dormant fist pump. From there, he was off: a beautiful 6-iron to five feet at 12, a replica of that shot from the tee at the par-3 13th, a 7-iron to 12 feet at the par-3 15th and a nice up-and-down from the side of the green at the par-5 16th, birdies all.
“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.”
The score wasn’t quite the 67 he shot to begin the 2006 Open, which he won. And there is all sorts of room for improvement.
“I need to get everything a little bit better,” he said. And then he headed to the practice range.