The first few hours of an Open championship are usually ones of genteel anticipation: a soundscape of rippling applause, light cheers and mild groans as the early groups swish, clack and tock their way out on to the course and into the nascent event. Golf tournaments being four-day crescendos, it usually takes a while before the volume across the links is turned up to five or six, never mind all the way to 11.
Not so this year at Lytham. The Open was three hours and 12 minutes old when Tiger Woods stepped on to the first tee and sent the needle careering into the red. The world's greatest golfer is guaranteed a huge cheer simply by teeing up, but by arrowing his opening shot straight at the flag on the par-three 1st, then knocking in the birdie putt, he encouraged the crowd to shatter the atmosphere much in the way fighter jets from nearby RAF Woodvale occasionally bother the sound barrier.
Almost immediately, this tournament was on. At the second, high on hope and adrenaline, Tiger pulled the big stick out of his bag. In homage to the idiosyncratic brilliance of King Severiano of St Anne's, Woods sent a hilariously wayward drive over the grandstand to the left, though his ball somehow sailed back on to the left-hand edge of the fairway. Woods went on to par the hole, subsequently deciding, as a general rule, to steer clear of the driver, and steer irons off the tee instead.
The policy worked wonderfully, and along the remainder of the front nine Woods delivered a performance of serene brilliance. His second birdie of the day came at the 4th, a textbook meander straight down the middle, so fuss-free that he barely allowed an eyebrow to twitch as he plucked the putt from the cup. A crisp approach set up another birdie on 6; the resulting 12-footer was just long enough for a local to attempt an Anglo-Americanism with a polite yelp of "Go in the hole!", the rest of the Lytham faithful to tut-tut at such absurd gaucheness, and the entire crowd to holler in delight as the ball disappeared from view.
Tiger was now officially hot, and was soon topping the early leaderboard after picking up another shot at the par-five 7th, courtesy of a Scottish bump-and-run to 18 inches, the quintessential Open approach. He reached the turn in 30, having taken up all the crowd-pleasing slack on his own.
By contrast, his playing partners Sergio García and Justin Rose were struggling. Garcia had traversed the 3rd like a Keystone Kop in a Ford Model T, first sending his drive into tangled nonsense down the left, then squirting his second out into even deeper filth down the right. Sergio trudged off after his ball, while a well-connected but fidgety punter, in what was surely an Open first, was reprimanded by an extremely irate steward thus: "Please put the iPad away, sir." While the troublesome technophile narrowly avoided having a tablet stuffed down his throat, Sergio took his medicine, chipping back out on to the fairway. Eventually carding a double, his round never really recovered.
In the meantime, Rose was suffering a full-blown nervous breakdown on the way out. Finding a bunker at the front-left of 1, he did well to splash out at all, having discovered his ball snug against the front lip, but couldn't make the par putt. He dropped another shot at 3, then embarked on a triptych of bogies at 6, 7 and 8, the last the result of a dreadfully weak chip. The teebox at 9 being adjacent to the eastbound platform of Ansdell & Fairhaven railway station, Rose must have been sorely tempted to bunk onto a train offering speedy access to Preston and subsequent cross-country connections to many places very far away. It is to his credit that he did not, especially after sending his next tee shot over the back of the par three. He was rewarded by getting up and down to at least avoid going out in 40 strokes.
The back nine was fairly uneventful in terms of movement on the scoreboard - rendered this year, incidentally, in a much more aesthetically sympathetic green, rather than the jarring blue of recent Opens – though there was still plenty enough notable action. Rose battled hard, coming back in 35 shots, one under par for the back nine, his shot picked up at the short par-four 13th. Garcia also birdied that hole, but responded in trademark style, winging a drive acres right on the very next tee and handing the shot straight back. It had been the second time he had followed birdie with bogey, after getting up and down from a bunker to appreciative roars at 7 only to three putt to groans of weary resignation on 8. His general hangdog demeanour does not augur well.
The two best shots of the day both came at 10, although neither ended up having any great significance. Garcia creamed a beautiful escape out of a deep entanglement down the left to 12ft, and naturally missed the birdie putt, while Woods punched his ball out of a deep fairway divot into the centre of the green, salvaging par from a dangerous position not of his own making.
Perhaps the most significant moment of the threeball came at 15, where Tiger decided to hit a rare wood from the tee, and pulled his ball into the thick stuff down the left. His attempt to hack the second up the track ended in abysmal failure, the grass gripping the shaft of his club and turning it over, the ball staying in the deep rough 60 yards up the hole. The resulting bogey - Tiger's only of the day - may inform a Hoylake-style approach from the tees for the rest of this Open.
Tiger's only other concern will be his putting. Never a fan of slow surfaces, Woods left several of his putts on the sodden greens short. Had his ball turned through a few more dimples during this round, he could easily have had a share of Adam Scott's course-record 64. "I'm very pleased with what I did today, but we've got a long way to go," said Woods. "We've got three more rounds. We've a lot of golf to play." In terms of his hopes and dreams for this week, Tiger is keeping quiet for now.
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image: © Keith Allison