ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Tiger Woods ran alone again on the 18th hole of the Old Course: a yellow scoreboard in front of him and the light behind him as locals and American visitors shouted “Tigerrrrrr!” behind the barricades.
But that was not a triumph at the British Open. This was the end of one of the worst rounds Woods has played in a Major: a six-over-par 78 that was a stark reminder of how much water has flowed under the Swilcan Bridge since his dominance at St Andrews.
Woods, who won the Open Championship here in 2000 and 2005, quickly reacquainted himself with the water on his return Thursday. After receiving the loudest applause of the day from the crowd gathered at the first hole, he hit his first tee shot in normally safe space (“a perfect shot,” he said) only to land in a fresh divot that spun his Approach shot to the green into an adventure.
“I said to myself, ‘Don’t flatten it and don’t cut it,'” Woods said. “I didn’t either, but I hit it in the burn anyway.”
A burn in Scottish usage is a ditch filled with water and the ditch in this case was the Swilcan Burn defending the first green. Woods’ shot went wide after a dive, and he ended up missing a short putt and starting his tournament with a double bogey.
As the omens go, it was an accurate one as he continued to struggle upwind, bogeying the third and fourth holes and making another double bogey on the seventh par-4 before making his first birdies of the round on the ninth and par- 4 made par-4 tenths.
But that was a false dawn as he continued to miss important chips and putts well short of their targets.
When asked what was the most disappointing, Woods didn’t hesitate.
“I just think the total score,” he said. “It feels like it wasn’t that bad after all. Yes, I had bad speed on the green, but I didn’t really feel like I hit it that badly. But I ended up in bad spots or just had some weird things happening. And that’s the way it works. Links golf is like that and this golf course is like that. And like I said, I’ve had my chances to turn it around and put it in the right direction, and I didn’t.”
He certainly didn’t, and it will take a sensational round and turn on Friday before he even makes the cut and ranks among the top 70 golfers.
“Looks like I’ll have to turn 66 tomorrow to have a chance,” he said. “Obviously it’s done. The guys did it today and that’s my responsibility tomorrow to go ahead and do it.”
He’s already 14 strokes behind leader, 25-year-old American Cameron Young, who shot an eight-under-par 64 in his first round of the tournament at St Andrews, having first played the Old Course while visiting Scotland as a family he was 13.
Woods also first came here as a teenager, playing at the Open Championship in 1995 as a 19-year-old amateur still learning the ins and outs of links golf. He made the cut on his debut but faded, shooting 78 on the final round: his worst round at St Andrews through Thursday.
But Woods learned fast, and when he returned to the Old Course in 2000, he was playing one of the best golf games of all time, finishing the career grand slam with an eight-shot win that was all the more remarkable of all, including his rivals , expected him to dominate.
He delivered, never hitting a bunker and set a record for a major by finishing 19 under par. He delivered again in 2005 when the Open returned to St Andrews, winning by five strokes, and followed that up by winning the 2006 Open at Royal Liverpool in bone-dry conditions that turned the fairways into fast-moving thoroughfares. He responded with irons off the tee to stay in control and maintained it beautifully until he finished the win and cried on the shoulder of his caddie Steve Williams, overcome by his feelings for his father Earl, who had died a few weeks earlier before the tournament.
Sixteen years later, Woods remains golf’s biggest star, even if he’s only a part-time competitor and still struggling to to find shape.
Returning to St Andrews was one of his main motivations when deciding to pursue his career and made a late decision to compete in that year’s Masters where he blasted a 71 in the opening round before falling to 47th place. He then played the PGA Championship in May and retired in pain before the final round after hitting a 79. He chose not to play the US Open to be ready for St Andrews.
Thursday was his first round of competition in nearly two months, and he looked and felt stronger, limping only slightly, if at all, for most of the afternoon.
“Yeah, it was a lot easier physically today than the other two events,” said Woods.
Although the Old Course isn’t the most physically demanding course, with its comparatively flat layout, congestion on the course caused by Woods and his playing partners Max Homa and Matt Fitzpatrick made the round an endurance test that lasted just over six hours in US -Open winner, always having to wait.
Homa, an American who finally fulfilled a career goal by playing a round with Woods, made the most of overtime and chatted at length with Woods, who actually looked less grim on the back nine than he did on the front nine.
“If there was anyone else in my group, if it was probably just Matt, I would have complained all day,” he said, adding that it was the “coolest” day he’s ever had on a golf course.
“It was a non-golf dream day come true,” said Homa. “It really felt like fantasy.”
Woods might have gone for Nightmare, but he was content that he’d managed to get healthy enough to play
“Very, very meaningful,” he said of his return to St Andrews. Woods added: “It was always on the calendar to hopefully be good enough to play it. And I am. I just didn’t do very well.”
But Woods, even shrunken at 46, still has the ability to give goosebumps. You could see and hear it all afternoon — and there was plenty of time to see and hear it — as he navigated the Old Course and fans lined up, often four rows deep behind the ropes, cell phones held high for photos to make of him, even at a distance. Many of them were parents with children far too young to have seen Woods at his best. Some held up stuffed tigers.
“They were amazing, absolutely amazing,” Woods said of the gallery. “So supportive.”
But the touching truth is that the forest so many roared for was the forest they remembered, not the forest they watched. Right now he’s what he never wanted to be: a ceremonial golfer, a big star but no longer a big threat, running the same fairways and greens but not making the same birdies and eagles.
As he made his way across the Swilcan Bridge and onto the 18th hole late Thursday after a long and sobering day, a woman on a third-story balcony overlooking the course summed up the mood and reality as she watched from above yelled, “Tigers!!!!! 2000!!!! 2005!!!!!”