- Open Championship, Round One
Purposeful Woods leaves it late to underline intent
It was perhaps easier to identify those players who had ruled themselves out of contention than those who had made a real statement of intent on Thursday, as Muirfield gained the early upper hand at the Open Championship.
2013 Open Championship leaderboard
- -5 Zach Johnson
- -4 Mark O'Meara
- -3 Brandt Snedeker, Miguel Angel Jimenez,
Dustin Johnson, Tom Lehman, Shiv Kapur
- -2 Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera
- Open Championship leaderboard
- McIlroy flounders at Muirfield
- Plays of the Day: Poulter's complaint
- Comment: Master and apprentice
As Rory McIlroy and, later, Luke Donald all but blew themselves out of contention with rounds of 79 and 80 respectively, Tiger Woods played enough quality shots in the hardest of the day's conditions to suggest he may once again be the man to watch out for on Sunday.
The world No. 1 carded a two-under par round of 69, just three shots shy of first round leader Zach Johnson - who had the benefit of far fresher greens as he made the early running.
"It was a round I had to grind it out," Woods said. "It was so hard to get the ball close, even lag putt and try to get the ball the right speed. It was very difficult."
Woods' round was pretty much the best of all the players starting after 3pm; suggesting that, if Friday morning offers amenable conditions, he could yet set the 36-hole target for all those to come.
A number of other contenders are well placed on the leaderboard, however - although it is Woods' old friend, Mark O'Meara, who actually poses the closest challenge to Johnson at four-under.
Another Johnson, Dustin Johnson, is among a group at three-under that includes Brandt Snedeker, Tom Lehman and Miguel Angel Jimenez - with Phil Mickelson a shot further back after a scrambling morning effort.
It is the name of Woods on the leaderboard, however, that most eyes will be immediately drawn to. The 14-time major champion played beautifully at times but certainly did not start in that vein; with two tee-shots off the 1st both being snap-hooked left.
Fortunately marshalls found his first - in a particularly thick bit of rough that forced the American to declare it unplayable. A scratchy escape and impressive up-and-down from a greenside bunker later, and Woods was nevertheless one-over after one.
A birdie at the fourth was given back at the sixth but, after seemingly realising that conditions made it a day to limit risks, Woods began to find a groove. Birdies at the 10th, 11th and - after a long putt - from the 13th saw him clamber under par; rendering the many scrambling par saves that had come before them especially important.
A putt that ran off the green at the 14th (and resulted in a bogey) may have had as much to do with the conditions as a slip from the player, but a majestic long-iron into the par-five 17th ensured that shot would be recovered before the end of the day's play.
The final score of 69, after a two-putt from 20 yards short at the last, may have only slipped Woods' name at the bottom of the top-ten - but the way he got there, with stingers off the tee and a surgeon's touch around the green, surely bodes well for his chances over the rest of the week.
"I really played well, other than the tee shot on one," he said. "It's so fiery out there. The golf course just kept drying out."
Elsewhere, Masters champion Adam Scott will be happy too with his level-par opener, completed just minutes ahead of Woods. The same can be said of Lee Westwood as he holed a number of putts to cling to one-over, a full three shots better than playing partner Sergio Garcia.
It's perhaps a measure of the increased difficulty of the afternoon conditions that Garcia seemed to play markedly better than early starter (and US Open champion) Justin Rose yet could only match the Englishman's score, and finish one worse off than defending champion Ernie Else - who twice left shots in the bunker at the 16th.
At least none of them fared as poorly as McIlroy, who complained of a poor mental approach as he shot a 79 that only earned him a half with Sir Nick Faldo. The Northern Irishman putted into a bunker at one point in his round, and saw at least two chips roll back to his feet.
"I've got to try to think a bit more, I'm trying to concentrate," he bemoaned. "I can't really fathom it at the minute. It's so brain dead."
Eight-over already, he will need an under-par second round to make the cut in 24 hours' time. The same goes for Donald.
What they would both have given for Zach Johnson's touch and poise, as he made the turn in 31 - thanks in part to an eagle at the fifth - and held on over the back nine.
"I hit solid shots and played really, really well today," Johnson noted. "A number of nice saves and a number of nice birdie putts.
"This is probably my favourite tournament to play. My appreciation starts with the fact you need to use every shot - when I leave here I always know what I need to work on."
The day was somewhat overshadowed by complaints about pin placements, with Mickelson calling some of them "very suspect", as players struggled to stop chips and putts within six-feet of a few holes.
The complaints, however, seemed to come mainly from those who had dropped shots over the closing holes, with others suggesting there was nothing out of the ordinary about the Royal & Ancient's setup.
"Unfortunately the guys this afternoon will struggle with a few pin positions," Ian Poulter, who finished one-over after dropping four late shots, said on Twitter. "Eighth hole is a joke, 18th needs a windmill & clown face."
"He's always moaning, Poults," Westwood responded. "The pins were on the green, weren't they?"