The hope for a glimpse of the old Tiger Woods quickly gave way in The Open at the Old Course

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The first time we saw Tiger Woods smile during his first round of the Open on Thursday was on the ninth green of the Old Course.

A successful birdie putt followed, and a rare moment of mind and body working in harmony. The sight of that smile encouraged viewers that perhaps there was still hope that he found another miracle from within as he struggled to manage the wind, speed and intricacies of the course.

There were moments when he was still stunned; those glimpses of what made Woods one of the best players we’ve seen. But throughout that 6-over-78 – a result that tied his worst round at St Andrews in an Open since 1995 – were reminders of where he is now in life and in his career.

As you watched him hobble around the course and tried to turn back the years, you felt like you just had to soak it all up while you could in preparation for the day when he won’t be able to stem the tide.

There were echoes of Woods’ past all over the Old Course this week, a deliciously upbeat mix of nostalgia and anticipation. The likes of Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy had raved about how well Woods hit the ball. But when his second shot of the round found the Swilcan Burn and there were already two of us going to the second that day, it was like the sky had clouded over.

The game dragged on. Woods’ group often had to wait at the tee for the green to clear, resulting in a round of 6 hours and 5 minutes.

“The only good thing about it taking so long was that you get extra time out with him,” said Matt Fitzpatrick, who was grouped with Woods and Max Homa.

As Woods approached the 6 o’clock ninth tee, viewers’ anticipation had turned from hoping to witness the old Woods to asking him to produce a little piece of magic for the highlight reel. Something to hold onto to tell whoever they’re closest to that they saw Tiger doing it. Two birdies followed and the cheers grew louder. We saw him smile. But then on the 11th he missed a 6-foot and that sinking feeling returned. You’ve seen Woods criss-cross the fairways and found himself in areas of the course where he danced around in 2000 and 2005.

“It feels like I didn’t really hit it that bad,” Woods said. “Yes, I had bad speed on the greens. But I didn’t really feel like I hit it that bad, but I ended up in bad spots. Or maybe some weird things just happened. And this golf course is like that. And like I said, I had my chance to flip it and put it in the right direction, and I didn’t.

No matter how this day went, his star power remains inescapable. It felt like most of the 52,000 spectators stayed near the R&A Clubhouse to see this group of Woods, Homa and Fitzpatrick tee off at 9:59am ET. A spectator had dyed his hair in a tiger pattern. Even royalty struggled to get a good look at Woods’ tee shot – as Prince Albert II of Monaco was unable to find his way through the crowd to catch a glimpse. It wasn’t all standing room – it was tiptoeing at best, and some resorted to watching it through the zoom on the phone raised in front of them. After Woods teed off, some went on but returned when they remembered that next up was home hope Matt Fitzpatrick, who had won the US Open less than a month ago.

“I didn’t realize how many people were there until Tiger was announced at number 1, it was like a sea of ​​people around us,” Homa said. “Then suddenly I was like a sacred cow. So I was very nervous. The whole first hole was like an out of body experience.”

For Homa it was the realization of a childhood dream.

“That was the coolest damn day I’ve ever had on a golf course,” said Homa. “He’s the GOAT for a reason. He was very, very nice. It was a really fun day.

As Woods walked down the first tee it felt like all of St Andrews had walked with him. He was in the right direction – so far, so good. But then the dissolution began. The ball had found a divot, Woods missed his second shot and the ball dribbled into the water.

He went to the second looking slightly confused. A loaner called out “Oh! GOAT!” as he launched his tee shot into the wind, but Woods’ face stayed like granite, unmoving. That gaze intensified as the round broke up further. And he had plenty of time to think – there was an hour between the start and the tee on the fourth. On the fifth, as Fitzpatrick and Homa exchanged a joke while again waiting for the fairway to clear, Woods was removed and stood silently at back.

McIlroy said this year’s tournament was like playing chess. But by the eighth, Woods must have felt like he was facing a grandmaster without half his pieces. That run he had in 2000 was famous for so many reasons. He won by 8 shots. He only carded three bogeys over the 72 holes. He dodged every one of the 112 bunkers on the Old Course.

But 22 years later it only took him seven holes to find one of these bunkers. Not yet at the turn, it was already his second double bogey.

On the eighth, the jubilation was dampened. Instead, it was lonely voices that cheered him on. One simply said “smile” as Woods approached the tee. And then came the brief rebound over the ninth and tenth. His back-to-back birds answered her request. But on the 11th we watched him fight again on the course he loves so much. Interactions with those around him were minimal. He showed little emotion other than the odd rueful shake of the head or a resigned smile on the 13th as he made three putts. There was one who said if it’s not your day, it really isn’t your day.

“Sometimes that’s just how it goes on a lap,” Woods said. “It only goes one way and it never seems to come back. No matter how hard you fight.”

The score is forgotten, a footnote in a brilliant career. But this occasion was a milestone for him personally. He’d made it to St Andrews.

During his rehabilitation after his car accident in February 2021, he circled this event. He was dying to try taming the old place again. And that thought brought him here for the first tee on Thursday, which was remarkable given the severity of the injuries he sustained last year and all the other injuries and surgeries that preceded him.

“[It was] very, very meaningful,” Woods said. “All in all I was hoping to play this event this year. Earlier this year, late last year, when I was in rehab I watched it and tried to see if I could do it, but somehow I got to play two of the big championships between then and now, which was great. But that was always on the calendar to hopefully be good enough to play. And I am. And just didn’t do it very well.”

There were glimpses of the old woods, like the birdie on the 14th after launching his tee shot 412 yards and his approach shot to the green on the 17th. But for those watching Woods up close for perhaps the first time in a long time , it felt like realizing that everything we had previously taken for granted had shifted as Woods neared a shot. The result was no longer guaranteed – the method and the look were the same, but the result was unpredictable.

St Andrews and The Open have seen four different iterations of Tiger Woods. In 1995 we saw young Woods claim his first Open championship as an amateur. By 2000 he had already won two majors and added his first Open with that remarkable feat of mopping the floor. This was followed by another incredible win in 2005. But when he missed the cut in 2015, seven years after his last major triumph, it was Woods’ third stage as his strength waned.

Although he still has Friday to turn things around, this could be Woods’ fourth stage – the one accident after the car. Expectations had shifted and he proved to himself that he could still play the game he loves with a mind just as sharp, but with a body he’s still figuring out. That was the best he’d felt since his comeback, but that’s not enough for a champion. The disappointment was evident when he spoke afterwards.

He’s been working to improve the Old Course for so long, but on Thursday he couldn’t find the answers. Woods isn’t ready to cast nostalgia on this round just yet. He’s not looking back – at least not at this point, because he has a new goal: to make the cut.

“Looks like I’ll have to turn 66 [on Friday] to have a chance,” Woods said. “So obviously it happened. guys did it [in the first round]. And that’s my responsibility [in the second round], go ahead and do it. Gotta do it.” The hope for a glimpse of the old Tiger Woods quickly gave way in The Open at the Old Course

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