Tiger's confident gait shows he's hit his stride

The way Woods strutted after making five birdies in a six-hole stretch was reminiscent of the good old days, when he lorded over this sport.

Suddenly, things are looking up for Tiger Woods in his comeback from back surgery.

Peter Morrison / AP

HOYLAKE, England -- Is Tiger Woods back?

Maybe he is.

But not because he opened with a solid 3-under-par 69 on Thursday at the Open Championship.

The sign that he was starting to remember who he is was far more subtle on the rarest of mornings on England’s northern coast: warm, sunny and with only the gentlest of breezes.

It could be measured in his gait; the way Woods strutted after making five birdies in a six-hole stretch was reminiscent of the good old days, when he lorded over this sport.

It could also be measured in the way he dealt with a question asking whether shooting 69 felt like old times.

To agree would be conceding too much.

“It wasn't that long ago,” Woods said. “I did win five times last year.”

Tiger backhanding insolence from the media; it’s been a while since that’s happened.

What he was saying was that he is Tiger Woods; present tense, not past. And, by extension, that his inquisitors are most definitely not Tiger Woods and never have been.

That’s the way it used to be; everyone knew their place, with Tiger as the king of the realm.

But the dynamics have been different for some time. It’s not like his rivals are intimidated by this Tiger. Too many hapless majors for him have passed.

As good as Woods’ 69 was – particularly after starting with bogeys on the opening two holes -- Rory McIlroy shot a breezy 66. Matteo Manassero shot 67, Adam Scott shot 31 on the front nine before settling in at 68.

White flags aren’t flown when Tiger climbs up the leaderboard.

But if he can start stringing rounds like these together, maybe some of that old intimidation factor might return?

Either way, Thursday had to be a pleasant surprise for Woods.

He has played two competitive rounds since having relatively minor back surgery in March. Those sloppy rounds added up to a missed cut at the Quicken Loans National two weeks ago.

Woods insisted, though, that that appearance was an important part of his evolution.

“If this was my first tournament back, (I’d) not really know how explosive I could be, how hard I could go at it, the shots I could play, all those were variables that I took care of at Congressional,” he said.

It wasn’t the best of starts, though it rarely is at majors for Woods, who is wont to bogey the first hole. Indeed, he made bogey here at the opening hole in 2006, when he won the third – and, to date, last – of his three claret jugs.

After needing to knock a 5-footer in for bogey, Woods promptly three-putted the second from about 40 feet.

But a big par save on the fourth seemed to steady him, and he found the spring in his step after converting for birdie on the par five fifth.

Woods made a good birdie from off the green on the 11th, then birdied 12 and 13, made bogey at 14 but bounced back with birdies on 15 and 16.

He found the greenside bunker in two on the final hole – a relatively benign par 5 – and had to settle for a par on a hole that yielded many birdies.

“It wasn’t exactly the greatest of starts, but I turned it around and ground my way round,”  he said.

“It felt like, even though I was 2-over through two, I still had four par-5s to go and I still had a couple of short holes. So if I played those holes well and the tough holes even par, I’d be somewhere under par.”

His back, he said, felt good, as did his game.

“I felt good. I felt good about a lot of things I did out there today,” he said. “It felt good to be back out there competing again.”

Not just be out there, but be out there competing.


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