ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND — “Smile” came the plea from a wee lad in the three-rows-deep gallery as Tiger Woods, stony-faced and with his head bowed, slowly approached the fourth tee at St. Andrews.
An hour into his first round and the one major Woods just couldn’t miss — a British Open at the home of golf — was beginning with a real grind.
A tough-to-watch start had seen him chunk his second shot into the Swilcan Burn, before he missed a short putt to run up a double-bogey. Then came a three-putt for bogey at the third hole.
By the time he had dropped two more shots at No. 7 after driving into a bunker on the adjacent hole, Woods was 6-over par and looking as forlorn as the spectator following the 15-time major winner while dressed in a tiger onesie.
He finished on that number, a 6-over 78 matching his second-highest score at golf’s oldest major and giving him a remote chance of making the weekend in what might be his final Open at St. Andrews. Only seven players in the 156-man field shot worse Thursday.
“Looks like I’m going to have to shoot 66 tomorrow to have a chance,” Woods said. “So obviously it has been done. Guys did it today. And my responsibility tomorrow is to go ahead and do it.”
Perhaps it was too much to expect Woods to contend this week, despite being one of the greatest players to pick up a golf club.
After all, he is playing on a right leg pieced together from a February 2021 car crash. It is only his third event of 2022 — all of them have been major championships — and first in nearly two months.
The 46-year-old Woods said this week he has no idea how long he’ll be able to compete physically at the highest level because of his battered body. So it meant he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play St. Andrews, perhaps for one last time on the stage where he won two of his three British Open titles.
“This was always on the calendar, to hopefully be well enough to play it. And I am,” Woods said. “I just didn’t do a very good job of it.”
There was sentimentality behind the loud cheers he received when walking onto the practice putting green beside the first tee, where he did some light stretches for his right leg, and then the first tee itself.
Surely no other player ranked No. 996 has had such a reception.
And shouts of “Go on Tiger” followed him as he walked down the first hole, where he reached a tee shot that had settled in the middle of the fairway but in a fresh divot. Woods looked away after hitting his approach shot as dust flew up off his club face. When he turned back around, he saw his ball bounce into the stream guarding the green.
“Either just don’t hit it flat (or) don’t blade it,” Woods said. “I didn’t do either. But I still hit it in the burn.”
He took a penalty, pitched over the water and badly missed a putt of about 4 feet. It was a sign of things to come.
“I still struggled with hitting the putts hard enough,” he said. “Just because they look faster, and especially when you consider actually the fairways are faster than the greens, it’s just a different dynamic than we were accustomed to.”
Though there was no obvious sign of a limp, Woods walked gingerly along St. Andrews’ uneven terrain throughout a painfully slow round that took more than six hours to complete and was played in nothing more than a light breeze. His long, often silent waits at tees gave him time to ponder a slew of erratic shots on the front nine, which at least ended with a birdie after getting up-and-down from behind the green.
Woods displayed more emotions coming back, his competitive juices perhaps starting to flow. His frustration was evident after failing to hole a short putt for birdie at No. 12, and there was a wry smile after missing his par putt on the next.
A drive of more than 400 yards at the par-5 No. 14, which he two-putted for a third and final birdie, prompted whoops and hollers from the gallery, and there were more on the 18th when his drive rolled onto the front of the green, only for the ball to drop back into the Valley of Sin.
It summed up his round that he could only make par from there. As he removed his cap and saluted the spectators around one of the most storied greens on golf, Woods couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“I had my chances to turn it around and get it rolling the right way,” he said, “and I didn’t do it.”