HOYLAKE, England — Oh, we of little faith. That will teach us. Doubt the Great Tiger, even after back surgery, even after not winning a major in six years. Dummies.
That’s what Mr. Woods implied, which for him was just as clear as if he spelled it out, d-u-m-m-i-e-s.
Of course it was normal to be skeptical. One tournament in three-and-a-half months for Woods before this opening round of the 143rd British Open. Win? Ha! How about making the cut?
But as we re-learned, Tiger Woods is not normal. Love him, hate him, Woods is special, something on a beautiful Thursday alongside the River Dee, he showed us once more.
There he was two over after two holes at Royal Liverpool in his first major in 11 months. Bye, Tiger, you were tempted to say. It will get better down the road. Except down the road for Tiger Woods was the fifth hole. Then the 11th hole, and the 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th holes, and even a bogey on 14 didn’t seem to matter as he came roaring in with a three-under 69.
Jeff Rude, a longtime writer for Golfweek, had the temerity to ask of Tiger, “Five birdies in six holes. Did it feel like old times?”
Woods rolled his eyes and leaned back from the microphone in the crowded interview corner called the flash area. “It wasn’t that long ago,” Woods reminded Rude and the rest of us, to nervous laughter. “I did win five times last year.”
And don’t you forget it.
A man doesn’t reach the top in sports, or maybe anything else, music, art, finance, without huge portions of self-belief. I once asked Barry Bonds what he did to get out of a slump. “I don’t get into slumps,” he said. Truth, tell, he didn’t.
Tiger has been in a slump only if we rate him on major championships, which we do because he himself judges his career on those monumental tournaments. But as he said so cuttingly, he did win five times in 2013.
That’s a lifetime worth of success for 98 percent of the pros. He did it in a calendar year.
Woods, as Bonds, never let a negative word enter his vocabulary about his own game. When Geoff Ogilvy, who later would take the 2006 U.S. Open, won the Accenture Match Play earlier that year, he said he had spent too much time as a younger golfer criticizing himself. “You never hear Tiger Woods do that,” said Ogilvy. “It’s always something else, not Tiger.”
Not Tiger. Not the man with 79 PGA Tour victories. Not the man who won the 2008 U.S. Open with a knee so bad he virtually limped off the 18th green at Torrey Pines to the operating room. Not the man who Thursday played the back nine at Royal Liverpool in 33.
“I knew I could do it,” Woods said. “That’s why I was telling you guys it was so important for me to play at Congressional.”
That was in the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C., at the end of June. Woods’ first tournament since back surgery March 31. He missed the cut, but Woods did get a jump on his comeback, which observers said wouldn’t be until the Open.
“The fact that I was able to recover every day,” he explained about his two rounds in that event, “and the fact that I was stronger, more explosive the more days I played. And I’m getting stronger. I’m getting faster (in clubhead speed). I’m getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again.”
We might even suggest Tiger Woods is playing like old times, except Woods would roll his eyes and act as if we don’t know a thing.
But what we do know is Woods, after an early stumble, started sticking the ball close to the pin and symbolically sticking it to those who insisted he wouldn’t have a chance in this Open—a very large and inclusive group.
“I’m not going to be the only guy in a 72-hole event to make two bogies,” said Tiger, referring to his rocky start. “I just got mine out the way early. With the forecast the next two days supposed to be iffy (wind and some rain), guys aren’t going to go real low here. We’re going to be bunched.”
He was three back of Rory McIlroy’s 66 after the first round. Maybe McIlroy fades. Maybe Tiger fades. His confidence, though, will not.
“I felt good,” Woods said of Day 1. “ I felt good about a lot of things I did out there, especially coming back after that start I had today, to fight myself back into the championship.”
And if you don’t like his attitude, too bad. Even after the long layoff, he’s still Tiger Woods, and we’re not.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.