ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Plaques and paintings and old photographs throughout St. Andrews honor the 143 past British Open champions. The ghosts of 500 years’ worth of golfers still roam the Old Course at St. Andrews. Centuries-old ruins dot the town’s skyline. For hundreds of years, golfers and sailors alike have used the steeples of the Hope Park & Martyrs Church and the Holy Trinity Church to navigate. Enshrouding and enfolding it all are the North Sea and the gray skies, the same now as they’ve been for all of recorded history.
Against all that, Tiger Woods’ pathetic opening round at the British Open doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Narrow the focus, though, and the inconsequential becomes insurmountable. Woods finished the day with a four-over 76, his worst round ever as a pro at St. Andrews. On an afternoon when birdies were plentiful and the course was gettable, Woods played, in Paul Azinger’s words, like “a middle-of-the-pack hack” – and even that might be too generous an assessment.
Woods is a lot closer to the bottom of the leaderboard (four strokes) than the top (11 strokes) – and at this point, seems a lot closer to the end of the line than the days when he won here before.
The woes began on the very first hole, when Woods fired his second shot into Swilcan Burn, the creek that crosses the course, like he was aiming there. He’d go on to bogey the first two holes and five of the first 10, and only a lonely birdie at 14 provided any relief. Woods walked throughout the day with his head down, deep frown lines on his face making him look eons older than the guy who'd won here twice previously. He at long last acknowledged the cheers of the crowd, perhaps because cheers mean more the less you have left.
Here’s the thing: Woods has absolutely no one to blame but himself for this performance. His playing partners, Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Day, carded scores of -5 and -6 respectively, two among dozens of golfers awash in red numbers. Hole after hole, Day and Oosthuizen outdrove, out-scrambled, outplayed Woods at every single turn.
Perhaps fearing the impact that those North Sea winds could have on his drives, Woods often throttled back off the tee, leaving himself dozens of yards behind Day and Oosthuizen. That forced Woods to hit longer irons into the greens, giving him less control and precision and leaving him with long putt after long putt.
“He was just struggling a little bit getting into the greens,” Day said. “He just wasn't hitting it close enough. He made a few mental errors around the greens and then just tried to press from there.”
“I made some good clutch putts,” Woods said. “I just needed to put those balls in position for birdies instead of for pars.”
“I know that he can get back out of this,” Day said, “it's just depending on how much he wants it.”
Thing is, at this point, it’s no longer a matter of Woods’ desire. Woods needs help from above – both from the skies overhead and the leaderboard names atop his.
“I'm so far back and the leaderboard is so bunched that in order for me to get in there by Sunday, I'm going to have to have the conditions tough and then obviously put together some really solid rounds,” Woods said. “If you shoot some good, solid rounds in tough conditions like that, players can move up the board, and hopefully I'm one of them.”
Hope. That’s pretty much all Woods has left, is hope. And given the fact that he couldn’t shoot well in perfect conditions, “hope” might not be the best word to describe shooting well in bad ones. “Prayer” might work. If nothing else, the two-time St. Andrews winner can look to the history books and realize that, in the long run, his past achievements will resonate more than his present failures.
“It's just tough,” Day said, “to see your idol struggle.”
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