The galleries were at least ten people deep besides the grandstands as Tiger Woods strode up to the 18th green, his pitch exquisitely placed to within five feet of the hole.
Anyone not within the first couple of rows would barely have had a view. That proved no deterrent. Scaffolding was scaled, a broadcasting ladder ascended and in the case of 86-year-old Ronald MacPhail, a zimmer frame abandoned, all to get the merest of glimpses of the Man in Black. “Aye, I wasn’t going to miss Tiger,” MacPhail, from nearby Monifieth, said. “I was here for Ben Hogan in ’53 so I wasn’t going to miss this.”
Woods then botched his birdie putt and you remembered that this was the World No 71 without a major win in ten years or a tournament title in five. After missing the cut at five of the last seven major tournaments, including last month’s US Open at Shinnecock Hills, a pair of even par 71s at least represents significant progress. This is the first time since the 2013 Open that Woods has opened a major with successive rounds of par or better.
Even though Woods is barely within touching distance of the leaders, he is likely to remain just as a big a draw. Maybe it is nostalgia, maybe it is a misplaced hope that he can rewind the clock 18 years, but the fascination with the 14-time major champion shows no signs of abating.
“It's fantastic to have the support we've had,” Woods said. “For as many people that came out in the rain today to support us, and obviously, nine is one of the furthest points on the golf course, and they walked all the way around cheering for us. Certainly, it's very appreciated.”
Yet there are downsides to such adulation. Earlier this week, Woods was criticised after a video did rounds on social media in which he failed to stop to sign some children’s autographs. No matter that had Woods stopped then it would have caused a stampede. No matter that 95% of golfers do the same thing on a daily basis. No matter that Woods has probably signed more autographs than other golfer here this week.
Despite this act of supposed child cruelty, the faithful were still in place in the pouring rain for Woods, who had used every last available second before his tee time on the putting green. The galleries that follow Woods are often described as a circus and with a revolving kaleidoscope of luminous coloured umbrellas and rain-jackets it looked that way.
However intense their devotion, the crowds do not always obey his commands. Pulling his driver out of the bag for the first time this Championship for the second hole, Woods shanked his tee shot onto the side of a mound. Woods, his caddie and the marshals repeatedly asked the crowd to retreat back from the rope. “Please, guys,” Woods kept saying. Each time, the crowd inched forward like a football wall the moment a referee’s back was turned.
They cannot say that they were not warned. Attempting to play over the mound rather than back on to the mound, Woods’ low shot veered straight through a bank of spectators and out the other side. Luckily no one was hurt, although Woods’ first concern was his ball placement. "I kept moving them back, if you noticed, I moved them back about 40 yards,” Woods said. “I was trying to play for the grass to wrap the shaft around there and hit it left, and I was just trying to hold the face open as much as I possibly could. But it grabbed the shaft and smothered it, and I was very, very fortunate that it got far enough down there where I had a full wedge into the green.”
It still was not enough to save his par and another bogey duly followed at the third after an ugly three putt. Woods immediately squashed any thoughts of another missed cut with two excellent putts, the second from fully 20 feet brought an old fashioned fist pump.
Could have taken literally 30 seconds out of his day to make these kids day at the open a bit more special. What a great role model Tiger Woods is for golf.. pic.twitter.com/cDBP5qDVM0— Cameron (@Cameron_SMFC) July 18, 2018
The putter continued to veer from hot to cold as he missed a six-footer to pick up a bogey on nine before magnificently saving par from 14 feet on 13. Woods had to settle for a birdie after a 25-foot eagle putt came up shot but a bogey duly followed on 16. Then came the aberration on the last.
“I could have cleaned up the round just a little bit,” Woods said. “I got off to not exactly the best start, being two-over through three, but got it back. The golf course was a little bit softer today, obviously. It rained, and we were able to get the ball down a little bit further, control the ball on the ground a little bit easier today, which was nice, and certainly birdies could be had out there.”
Woods will start today in one of the earlier groups but the congregation will be gathered come rain or sun. They still believe and so – in spite of being six shots back and all the ravages he has been through – does Woods. “Right now I'm six back, and by day's end, I think I'll be more than that,” Woods said. “It will be a pretty packed leaderboard, and I'm certainly right there in it.”