HOYLAKE, England — Tiger Woods is back at the majors.
Seems like he was never away.
After a shaky start to the British Open, Woods ripped through Royal Liverpool on Thursday much as he did eight years ago when he won the claret jug for the third time. A 30-foot birdie from the fringe of the 11th green got him going. Four more birdies in the next five holes carried Woods to a 3-under 69, leaving him three shots behind leader Rory McIlroy.
Not bad for a guy playing his first major of the year, who was unable to swing a club for months after back surgery.
“I’m only going to get better,” Woods said. “I’m getting stronger, I’m getting faster, I’m getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again. And those are all positive things.”
For McIlroy, it was another blistering start.
The question now: Can he keep it going?
McIlroy took full advantage of prime scoring conditions for those who went out early, a 66 putting him in the familiar position of first-round leader. He has played the opening round in a cumulative 55-under par this year, including three 63s and a course-record 64 at last week’s Scottish Open.
But McIlroy failed to win any of those events, largely because of what he calls his “second-round thing,” an acknowledged mental block that he’s struggling to overcome.
His total score on Fridays — 15 over.
“Maybe it’s having higher expectations going out on a Friday because you shot a low round,” said McIlroy, whose goal now is “to put those expectations aside.”
Woods, who has been stuck on 14 major titles for more than six years, is just happy to be playing after the March 31 surgery kept him out of the Masters and the U.S. Open.
He bogeyed the first two holes on a mild, sunny morning with only a hint of a breeze rippling the flags. Down the stretch, he looked more like the player who went 18 under the last time golf’s oldest major was held at this course along the Irish Sea.
“I felt good about a lot of things I did out there,” said Woods, who played the back nine in 4-under 33. “Especially coming back after that start I had today, to fight myself back into the championship.”
The conditions were a far cry from 2006, when he won on dry, fiery course that made the grass more brown than green. This time, Royal Liverpool was lush and relatively soft after intermittent rain on Wednesday.
Matteo Manassero made only one bogey and also shot 33 after the turn, capitalizing on a quirk in the course which puts three par-5s in the closing nine. He birdied them all for a 67.
He wasn’t the only Italian in the thick of things. Brothers Edoardo and Francesco Molinari opened with matching 68s.
“I saw the leaderboard,” said Francesco, the younger of the siblings. “But it’s a tough course, so you have to focus on what you are doing rather than the others are doing — even if it’s your brother.”
The wind picked up through the day, making it tougher for those with afternoon tee times.
Even so, Adam Scott made a run at the leaders, spurred by an eagle at the fifth. The world’s top-ranked player staggered a bit coming to the finish but still managed a 68, matching Spain’s Sergio Garcia and a pair of Americans, Jim Furyk and Brooks Koepka.
Another shot back, Woods was at 69 with countrymen Rickie Fowler, Jimmy Walker and Boo Weekley; Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, Koumei Oda and Yoshinobu Tsukada; Sweden’s Robert Karlsson; and Australia’s Marc Leishman.
Of the top 17 players in the clubhouse, Scott and Weekley were the only ones to tee off in the afternoon.
“We had perfect scoring conditions,” McIlroy said. “There were plenty of opportunities to make birdies.”
Defending champion Phil Mickelson, who hasn’t won since his 2013 victory at Muirfield, was among those who faded late in the day. He shot 74, closing with a bogey after his second shot sailed out of bounds, forcing him to take a cart back to the spot where he struck the ball for a do-over.
Ernie Els really made a mess of things, the tone set when his very first shot struck a fan in the face. Clearly unsettled, the Big Easy missed a putt of less than a foot at No. 1, then sloppily whacked the ball with a backhanded swipe and missed again, making triple-bogey.
Woods returned to action three weeks ago at Congressional, but missed the cut. It looked as though he might be headed to a similar fate when his second shot of the day settled in one of the treacherous pot bunkers, leading to bogey. At No. 2, he knocked a long putt about 6 feet past the hole and then missed the comebacker to take his score to 2 over.
Woods took advantage of the only par 5 on the front side for his first birdie. But it was that long putt at the 11th that seemed to spark his round, the first of three straight birdies. After another bogey at the 14th, set up by an errant tee shot into the hay, Woods made two more birdies.
“It felt good,” he said, “to be back out there competing again.”
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