- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

HOYLAKE, England — Tiger Woods announced his official return to major preeminence at dusk yesterday, slamming home an 18-foot eagle putt on Hoylake’s final green to post an opening 67 and put an exclamation point on the day’s full-field demolition of Royal Liverpool.

“We’re right there in the ballgame at 5 under,” said Woods, who trails only unheralded Irish rabbit Graeme McDowell on the leader board of the 135th British Open. “Shooting 67 feels good.”

It must feel particularly rewarding considering Woods’ performance in last month’s U.S. Open, where an atrocious putting exhibition at Winged Foot cost him his first missed cut in 38 major starts as a professional.

Fact is, yesterday’s opening salvo confirms just what the entire golf world already knew: Tiger’s result at Winged Foot wasn’t a harbinger or a bellwether moment for golf. It was an anomaly, the result of a long layoff and the residual emotional fallout from his father’s death in May.

The game’s wrecking ball of focus, form and feel is back.

If searching for a perfect example of that first quality, perhaps the most devastating trait in Woods’ arsenal, look no further than the eagle putt he dropped to finish his afternoon.

What was Woods doing to kill time before his 2:40 p.m. tee time? He was hawking the BBC broadcast, trying to pick up a few extra tips on how the course was playing. That investment paid dividends when he reached the 18th green yesterday … with a 260-yard, 4-iron, by the way.

“I don’t know who it was, but someone made that putt earlier this morning,” Woods said. “I was watching it on the telecast. It doesn’t break at the end. It holds its line. I would have given that hole away if I hadn’t seen that putt earlier in the day.”

Want focus? Despite starting in the afternoon with basically the whole field already posted at 4- and 5- under, Woods didn’t deviate from his plan to plot his way around Hoylake without much help from Frank. He left the headcover on his driver and used 2-iron off every tee but one (No. 16). That routinely left him with longer approaches than his playing partners, but it also eliminated the threat of Hoylake’s treacherous cross bunkers, which pinch most fairways at between 300 and 330 yards.

Want form? Consider the fact that Woods collected a silver in his last start (Western Open) and then retained that standard of play yesterday. Aside from his score, the most important statistic on his card yesterday was his 27 putts. With the exception of a hiccup at the first hole, where he made a suspect stroke on a five-foot par putt, Woods looked comfortable with the short stick all day. He made a handful of medium-range birdie putts and grazed the cup with a number of others, quickly adjusting to the somewhat slower pace of the greens after their overnight soaking.

And the feel that always has been evident with his short game made its most notable appearance at the 14th, when he parlayed a nasty lie in the rough behind the short side of the green into the kind of up-and-down par about which amateurs can only dream.

“I think the up-and-down there [saved the day], because I had potentially three birdie holes coming in Nos. 15, 16 and 18, and I didn’t want to drop back to 1 under there,” said Woods, who did indeed play those holes in 3 under despite a par at the 15th. “It was nice to get that save there, keep the momentum going and then finish off the round very well.”

Some would claim one round, however impressive, is insufficient proof; too little evidence to discuss the state of Tiger’s game. But Woods has a record unlike any other when he plays well in the opening round of a major. He’s been devastatingly efficient as a Slam frontrunner, winning the last five majors in which he has been either leading or within one of the lead after the opening round.

If Tiger tastes a drop of the draft, he’s probably going to make off with the whole keg.

And Tiger would be the first to admit the claret jug makes a mighty fine stein.

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