Published July 20, 2006
HOYLAKE, England – A little rain took the fire and fear out of Royal Liverpool. Still intact was the strange nature of the British Open, such as the peculiar path Tiger Woods took toward the top of the leaderboard Thursday.
He started by missing a par putt from 30 inches and finished by making an eagle putt from 25 feet, giving him a 5-under 67 to leave him one shot behind Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
Along the way, Woods took two shots to escape a pot bunker, had to bend a shot around a signpost after marshals tried in vain to twist it loose, and hit the fairway the one time he decided to hit driver. That was the 16th hole, and the ball landed in the 17th fairway.
"You can make birdies out there," Woods said, showing that in a myriad of ways. "And, obviously, guys are doing it."
McDowell made six of them without losing a shot, and his 66 broke by one shot the course record set by Roberto De Vicenzo in 1967. Then again, that was the last time the British Open came to these forgotten links south of the Mersey River.
And as tidy as his round was, even McDowell had to endure a bizarre moment at the British Open.
He was in a pub Wednesday night when a local lad recognized him, asked for his autograph, then gave him a swing tip.
"He said, 'You get it pretty laid off at the top, don't you?' And I said, 'Yeah, I guess I do.' He said, 'Get a bit of work done on that, will you?' " McDowell said. "I was kind of joking with the guys, if I shoot 66, I guess I'll be wanting to see that guy on the range Friday morning."
The biggest surprise of all was the change to a crusty course that had caused consternation early in the week. It had been so brown and brittle that the Royal & Ancient asked that two fire engines be allowed inside the gates in case the links caught fire.
Instead, rain showed up overnight and caused a 30-minute delay in the morning because of lingering thunder. It hardly flooded the century-old course, although it didn't take long to notice the difference.
"Nobody expected the course to be like this," Jim Furyk said after his 68. "It's just a day where you need to post a good number and keep up with everyone else. The biggest change I started seeing was when I fixed a ball mark. I knew the scores would be good then."
And they were.
For those concerned that Royal Liverpool could not hold its own against the best players and their titanium toys, the best anyone could muster in relatively benign conditions was McDowell's 66, the same score that has led after one round at the last two Opens.
It was the 67 rounds under par — 32 of them in the 60s — that got everyone's attention.
Since the PGA Tour began keeping records in relation to par in 1956, the highest number of sub-par scores in the first round of the British Open was 59 at St. Andrews in 1995. No other major has had so many low scores in the first round.
"If it hadn't rained, it would have been unbelievable for four days," Fred Couples said after a 70.
Greg Owen of England, the hard-luck runner-up at Bay Hill, was among four other players who joined Woods at 67. The baker's dozen at 68 included Ernie Els, Mike Weir, Adam Scott and Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman.
Phil Mickelson, trying to put his U.S. Open collapse behind him, soared to the top of the leaderboard before cooling over the final eight holes, missing two greens in spots he knew were forbidden to take bogeys. He finished at 69.
"I've just got to execute better," he said.
Els figured scores might have been lower if players were not so cautious about the first round.
"You don't want to shoot yourself out of it the first day, so you're not taking as many chances," Els said. "It's not the hardest course we've ever played because of the weather. But there's enough trouble out there where it makes you really think on every hole."
Not all the names atop the leaderboard were familiar, another tradition at the British Open.
One of them belonged to Anthony Wall, the son of a London cab driver whose only European tour victory came in South Africa. He made two eagles on his way to a 67, and didn't see anything surprising about being in contention at only his second major.
"No reason why not," he said. "I have two legs and two arms. I played some good golf. You need the luck, that's the main thing. And here I am."
Perhaps the craziest round belonged to Mark Hensby, one of 23 Aussies in the field. He hit a 2-iron out-of-bounds on the third hole and took triple bogey. He rebounded with nine birdies the rest of the way and joined the crowd at 68.
McDowell shot into the lead with three straight birdies, none more unlikely than holing a bunker shot on the par-3 ninth. He had to settle for a birdie on the par-5 16th after hitting 4-iron to 15 feet, then lost a chance for birdie on the par-5 18th when his tee shot found the rough. Still, seeing his name atop the gold-and-black leaderboard behind the 18th green was sweet.
"I just want to be up there on Sunday and enjoy myself coming down the last hole," McDowell said.
Woods was pleased to see his name so high on the board, too, considering his forgettable episode the last time he played in a major. With consecutive rounds of 76 at Winged Foot, the world's No. 1 player missed the cut for the first time as a pro in a major championship.
The defending champion at the British Open now looks like a good bet to become the first repeat winner since Tom Watson in 1983. It was the sixth time Woods has shot 5 under or better in the first round of a major, and he won four of the others.
Asked about his confidence, Woods replied, "Shooting 67 makes me feel good, yes."
Then he headed for the practice range, still needing to sort out some mechanics in a swing under constant scrutiny. One piece of criticism came 18 months ago from six-time major winner Nick Faldo, while working for ABC Sports.
Woods and Faldo played together, and while the photographers crowded into position for the big showdown, all they got was a handshake. Faldo then turned to the gallery and tapped his cheek, signaling they had kissed and made up.
Faldo, however, missed one putt after another and was 10 shots behind Woods, shooting a 77 his worst opening round at the British Open since he opened with a 78 at Carnoustie in 1999.
The day was a mad scramble for the lead, a Daytona 500 with cars four-wide in the turn. Woods was a late arrival with his birdie-par-eagle finish. What saved him was a couple of pars, however, particularly on the 14th. From right of the green in tall grass, with only 8 feet of green to land the ball, he chopped at a flop shot and it stopped 5 feet from the hole.
"I had three potential birdie holes. I didn't want to drop a shot there and go back to 1 under," he said. "It was nice to hit that save and keep the momentum going, and I finished off the round very well."