Tiger Woods was walking alone again on the 18th hole of the Old Course: a yellow scoreboard in front of him and the light fading behind him as locals and American visitors shouted “Tigerrrrrr!” from behind the barricades.
But this was no victory march at the British Open. This was the end of one of the worst rounds that 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 days of domination at St. Andrews.
Woods, who won the Open Championship here in 2000 and 2005, reacquainted himself with the water in a hurry in his return on Thursday. After getting the loudest round of applause of the day from the crowd gathered on the first hole, he hit his opening tee shot in a normally safe space (“a perfect shot,” he said) only to land in a fresh divot that turned his approach shot to the green into an adventure.
“I told myself, ‘Don’t hit it flat and don’t blade it,’” Woods said. “I didn’t do either, but I still hit it in the burn.”
A burn in Scottish parlance is a water-filled trench, and the trench in this instance was the Swilcan Burn that defends the first green. Woods’s shot splashed down after one bounce, and he ended up missing a short putt and starting his tournament with a double bogey.
As omens go, it was an accurate one as he continued to struggle into the wind, bogeying the third and fourth holes and making another double bogey on the par-4 seventh before making his first birdies of the round on the par-4 ninth and par-4 tenth.
But that was a false dawn as he resumed leaving important chips and putts well short of their targets.
Asked what was most disappointing, Woods did not hesitate.
“I think just the total score,” he said. “It feels like I didn’t really hit it that bad. Yes, I did have bad speed on the green, but I didn’t really feel like I hit it that bad. But I ended up in bad spots or just had some weird things happen. And that’s just the way it goes. Links golf is like that, and this golf course is like that. And as I said, I had my chances to turn it around and get it rolling the right way, and I didn’t do it.”
He certainly did not, and it will take a sensational round and turnaround on Friday for him to even make the cut and land in the top-70 golfers.
“Looks like I’m going to have to shoot 66 tomorrow to have a chance,” he said. “Obviously it’s been done. Guys did it today, and that’s my responsibility tomorrow, is to go ahead and do it.”
He is already 14 shots behind the leader, the 25-year-old American Cameron Young, who shot an eight-under-par 64 in his first tournament round at St. Andrews after first playing the Old Course during a visit to Scotland with his family when he was 13.
Woods first came here in his teens, too, playing the 1995 Open Championship as a 19-year-old amateur who was still coming to grips with the quirks and charms of links golf. He made the cut in his debut but faded and shot 78 in the final round: his worst round at St. Andrews until Thursday.
But Woods learned quickly and when he returned to the Old Course in 2000, he was playing some of the finest golf ever played and completed the career Grand Slam with an eight-shot victory that was all the more remarkable in that everyone, including his rivals, expected him to dominate.
He delivered, never hitting into a bunker and setting a record for a major by finishing at 19 under par. He delivered again in 2005 when the Open returned to St. Andrews as he won by five shots and then followed that up by winning the Open in 2006 at Royal Liverpool in bone-dry conditions that turned the fairways into fast-running thoroughfares. He responded by using irons off the tee for control and maintained it beautifully until he had finished off the victory and wept on the shoulder of his caddie, Steve Williams, overcome by his feelings for his father, Earl, who had died just a few weeks before the tournament.
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Sixteen years later, Woods remains golf’s biggest star even if he is only a part-time competitor, still struggling to find form after the single-car crash in February 2021 that left him with serious injuries and had doctors considering amputation of his right leg.
Returning to St. Andrews was one of his primary motivations when he chose to resume his career, making a late decision to take part in this year’s Masters where he shot an opening-round 71 before fading to 47th. He then played in the P.G.A. Championship in May, withdrawing in pain before the final round after shooting a 79. He chose not to play in the U.S. Open with an eye on being ready for St. Andrews.
Thursday was his first competitive round in nearly two months, and he looked and felt stronger, limping only slightly, if at all, for much of the afternoon.
“Yeah, it was a lot easier today, physically, than it has been the other two events, for sure,” Woods said.
Though the Old Course is not the most physically demanding course with its comparatively flat layout, the round turned into an endurance test, lasting just over six hours because of backups on the course that caused Woods and his playing partners Max Homa and Matt Fitzpatrick, the U.S. Open champion, to have to wait repeatedly.
Homa, an American who finally fulfilled a career-long goal by playing a round with Woods, made the most of the extra time, chatting at length with Woods, who actually looked less grim on the back nine than he did on the front nine.
“If there was anybody else in my group, if it was probably just Matt, I would have been complaining all day,” he said, adding it was the “coolest” day he has had on a golf course.
“It was a dream-come-true type day minus some of the golf,” Homa said. “It really felt like fantasy.”
Woods might have opted for nightmare, but he did sound content that he had managed to get healthy enough to play
“Very, very meaningful,” he said of his return to St. Andrews. Woods added, “This was always on the calendar to hopefully be well enough to play it. And I am. I just didn’t do a very good job of it.”
But Woods, even diminished at 46, still has the capacity to create goose bumps. You could see it 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 with their cellphones held aloft to take pictures of him, even at a distance. Many of them were parents with children far too young to have watched Woods at his best. Some held up stuffed tigers.
“They were fantastic, absolutely fantastic,” Woods said of the gallery. “So supportive.”
But the poignant truth is that the Woods so many were roaring for was the Woods they remember not the Woods they were watching. For now, he is what he never wanted to be: a ceremonial golfer, a major star but no longer a major threat, walking the same fairways and greens but no longer making the same birdies and eagles.
As he made his way over the Swilcan Bridge and toward the 18th hole late on Thursday after a long and deflating day, a woman on a third-floor balcony overlooking the course summed up the mood and reality as she screamed from on high: “Tiger!!!!! 2000!!!! 2005!!!!!”
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