Golf: Long and turbulent first day at British Open

GULLANE, Scotland - At 7.41pm, Thursday, at the 18th hole, the Scottish sun still high, it was hard to see Tiger Woods' ball from the back of the green. Cameramen stood in expectant wait and obscured the view. Photographers aimed. No one moved.

Woods needed this par putt to finish at two-under 69, three shots off the lead at the Open. He needed this putt to make his impressive day of pure grinding worth it.

The putt rolled in, a crowd hailed it noisily. Woods half-turned in acknowledgement and then walked to the scorer's hut. People offered him congratulations. "Thank you," he said repeatedly. "Thank you". He didn't smile much but he'd had a good day on what was a mad day.

On the Open's first day, the genial Charles Schwartzel of South Africa had hurled and broke a club. An Indian named Shiv Kapur led briefly at six-under in the afternoon. Rory McIlroy, after an eight-over 79, said "sometimes I feel like I'm walking around out there and I'm unconscious". And Ian Poulter tweeted that the 8th hole was "a joke".

Yes, it was fun.

At the end of a long, and turbulent, day at Muirfield, American Zach Johnson, with a five-under 66, led Rafael Cabrera-Bello of Spain and American Mark O'Meara by a stroke. Johnson started in the morning. By the afternoon the course was not quite unplayable, but so firm, so fast, so fury-inducing that Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, was confronted about it.

His answer? "We're still very satisfied with the course. It's playable, but indeed very testing."

This might qualify as classic understatement for by day's end only 20 players finished under par. Notably this included a somewhat paunchy platoon of Dad's army -- O'Meara, 56 (four under), Tom Lehman, 54 (three-under), Todd Hamilton, 47 (two under) and Miguel Angel Jiminez, 49 (three under). The first three have won the Open before and have a degree in navigating link courses. The rest just got angry.

Admittedly, the ball was moving like a marble on a glass floor and Woods even putted a ball off a green. Mickelson noted that "the pins were very edgy, on the slopes, and the guys that played early had a huge, huge break. Because even without any wind, it's beyond difficult".

Graeme McDowell, who finished with a four-over 75, was gentler, pointedly insisting that the course was "not unfair". Yet he used an interesting vocabulary to describe the area around the holes. "Glassy", he said. Like an "ice rink", he added.

Yes, we understood.

Complaint had taken no time to arrive. After a single day of play, a course set-up that was widely praised as "fair" by golfers earlier in the week, had turned into a torture chamber.

And if you were a colour-blind golfer, clearly you were in serious trouble. Because for Johnson, the leader, this is where the secret to the greens lay. "I think what you've got to pay attention to, frankly, is colour. If it's green, it's a little slower. If it's brown, it's going to continue to roll."

McIlroy, alas, was simply off-colour. In a grim irony he finished on the same score as Nick Faldo, who is 32 years older, hasn't struck a competitive ball in three years and whose advice regarding practice he found was uncalled for.

One over on the front nine, McIlroy's back nine was a mish-mash of four bogeys, two double bogeys, two pars and a birdie. Later, he said: "I'm trying to focus and trying to concentrate. But, yeah, I can't really fathom it at the minute, and it's hard to stand up here and tell you guys what's really wrong."

Woods had a happier ending but a bizarre beginning for he started with a drive that had a better left hook than Joe Frazier's. It hit a tree, disappeared into the rough, he took an unplayable lie, knocked it into a bunker yet escaped with a bogey. Thereafter he showed control of club, emotion and nerve in a fascinating round.

He birdied the 10th, then the 11th, and saved par at the 12th with a bunker shot played on one bended knee. And then on the 13th, as a curling, long putt fell in, his arm went up in triumph, his hat came off and his smile came back. It was a familiar image. It might not have been his best day, but for this brief fleeting moment it felt like the old days.

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