ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Welcome back to 2000.
Tiger Woods birdied seven of the first 12 holes at St. Andrews yesterday to put a stranglehold on the 134th British Open before America even woke up. Considering Woods’ flawless record as a major front-runner and the eight-stroke thrashing he put on the field around the Old Course five years ago, 54 holes of remaining golf never seemed so superfluous.
“I still feel very comfortable out there,” said Woods of the course Mother Nature and Old Tom Morris seem to have crafted to his particular strengths — massive length off the tee, unsurpassed putting touch and a mental focus immune to all but the foulest of weather conditions.
Despite a steady, stiff breeze and cool conditions, Woods cruised around the 7,279-yard, par-72 Old Course in 66 early morning strokes, one better than sudden major maven Mark Hensby. And perhaps most daunting, Woods’ score was one better than the 2000 opener he parlayed into a tournament-record total of 19-under (265).
An eerie air of inevitability descended on golf’s most sacred stage as Woods came screaming out of the famed St. Andrews’ loop (Nos.7-12) with the noose already tightening on the field of 156 players, more than two-thirds of whom hadn’t even teed off. Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie (71) later used the word “ominous” to describe Woods presence atop the leader board.
An almost laughable 5-2 favorite even before yesterday’s torrid start, Woods shared the pretournament limelight with 65-year-old legend Jack Nicklaus (75), the 18-time major champion who is making his final competitive Slam appearance this week. And yesterday’s early Woodsian charge created the same sort of gallery-electrifying, field-intimidating buzz which immortalized the Golden Bear long before the Brits plastered his picture on a five-pound note.
Playing just ahead of Woods, Nicklaus not only felt the Tiger tremors, he expected them.
“That’s not a fast start for him, that’s normal,” Nicklaus said of the man in unrelenting pursuit of his legacy.
Thankfully for the rest of the field and the sake of suspense, Woods found a left-hand fairway bunker with his 2-iron off the 13th tee to drop one stroke, then recorded another bunker-bound bogey at the 16th before closing on a high note with his third two-putt birdie of the day at the driveable 18th.
“Even though I had it going 7-under through 12, finishing 6-under is a great start to the tournament,” said the confident nine-time major champion. “I feel like I’m playing really well.”
Perhaps even more remarkable than his superb play yesterday was Woods’ revelation that his mom, Kultida, was staying at a hotel in London last week across from one of the bomb sites. Woods was on the course at noon yesterday during the two-minute cessation in play to honor the victims of the terrorist attacks. When asked to comment on the moment of silence, Woods stunned the media tent with his response:
“My mom was right across the street from where the bomb blew up. I was very thankful that my mom is still here. It very easily could have been pretty tragic for me personally.”
Strangely, the 29-year-old Woods didn’t hear about his mother’s brush with disaster until Wednesday, and even then the news came from his swing coach, Hank Haney, and not Tida.
“She doesn’t tell me anything. That’s kind of how our family is,” said Tiger, who was preparing for the Open in Ireland at the time of the bombings and knew his mother was touring Europe with other family and friends but was presumably unaware of her exact itinerary.
If the lack of communication between mother and son struck most as odd, Tiger’s further elaboration on the subject of the Woods’ family unit qualified as somewhere between bizarre and downright alarming.
“If you’re injured or you’re hurt or you’re sick or anything, you don’t tell anyone. You just deal with life and move on,” said Woods, whose parents, while still married, haven’t lived together for more than a decade. “When my dad had cancer, he didn’t say anything. When I had my knee surgery [after the 2003 season], I didn’t say anything. We just do that. It’s one of our deals of probably being a Woods, I guess.”
Some would label that the natural stoicism of a family headed by a Vietnam-hardened lieutenant colonel. Others would call it downright dysfunctional. Regardless, it’s a rare glimpse into the background and psyche of a champion who often seems like a bloodless, inhuman machine in the kind of high-stress, Slam-stakes atmospheres that cause even accomplished veterans to hyperventilate.
And the 34-year-old Hensby, in spite of his high finishes in the season’s first two majors (tied for 5th at the Masters, tied for 3rd at the U.S. Open), hardly qualifies as an accomplished veteran. Hensby, who stands one clear of a cluster that includes two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, British hope Luke Donald, two-time Masters victor Jose Maria Olazabal and aging fan favorite Fred Couples, has just one third-tier PGA Tour victory to his credit (2004 John Deere Classic) and harbors no delusions about his head-to-head hopes against Woods.
“When Tiger is on, he’s impossible to beat. We all know that,” said Hensby. “People are scared to say it, but it’s true. He’s the best. If he’s playing well, everybody knows we’re playing for second.”