Typically only insomniacs turn on the television to watch golf at 4 a.m. in a desperate effort to go back to sleep.
On Thursday, golf junkies were actually waking up intentionally to do just that.
The start of ESPN’s live 11-hour coverage of the first round of the British Open at Royal Liverpool just happened to coincide with the major championship return of Tiger Woods. And the man who moves golf’s needle the way The Beatles once did rewarded the diehards with an encouraging performance.
If you were one of the multitudes doubting Woods had any reasonable chance of ending a six-year major drought based on his two over-par rounds since having back surgery March 31, Woods’ opening volley at Hoylake should give you second thoughts. Even after his 3-under 69 set him up in the top 10, there’s still a long way to go for him to replicate his emotional 2006 victory on the same links course. Established guys like Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Jim Furyk and Sergio Garcia aren’t going to just step aside and let Woods cruise on past.
The point is, however, it’s not so unreasonable to think Woods can actually do it. His game showed all the signs of resuming normalcy – attacking shots with unconcerned force, stopping in the middle of downswings to bark at itchy photographers and executing awkward-stance bunker shots that four months ago might have sent him to the emergency room.
“I felt good about a lot of things I did out there,” Woods, who birdied five of six holes in a back-nine stretch to inject himself into the picture, told reporters after his round.
While the rest of us have tempered our expectations of Woods – most of us now doubting he can cover the four-major gap on Jack Nicklaus in his history quest – he hasn’t.
“If he goes to Hoylake saying, ‘I’m here to win and that’s the only thing,’ that would be him telling a lie to himself,” Curtis Strange said during the Open buildup. “I hope he makes the cut ... but I don’t think you could ever expect him to be on the first page of the leaderboard come the weekend.”
Naturally, Woods was asked by reporters Tuesday what would be “an acceptable finish” this week. He spat out a simple “First” so reflexively that folks in the interview room laughed.
“That’s always the case,” he insisted.
Those skeptical snickers carried over if you bothered to wake up to watch his 4 a.m. start. He blasted an impossible bunker shot over the green on No. 1 and made bogey, then followed it up with a three-putt bogey on No. 2. Despite what was described as ideal scoring conditions, Woods was still 1-over par through 10 holes while the leaders were making birdies all over the place.
Then all of the sudden, Tiger Woods showed up. The one we used to know.
Draining a 30-footer up a slope from off the green on the 11th lit a fire. He started knocking shots close and making putts and moving into contention. Any drowsiness from an early wake-up call was gone as Tiger gave a glimpse that his career goals are far from finished.
“I knew I could do it,” Woods said. “I’m only going to get better. 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.”
The most positive signs came at the end. Woods pulled a familiar trick, pulling up on his 3-wood in mid-downswing after cameras distracted him. Not easy to do even without back issues. Then he managed a tough shot standing half out of a pot bunker from a stance that would make chiropractors cringe. Then after giving interviews, he immediately retreated to the range to work some more, “attacking balls ... with ferocity and purpose” wrote ESPN.com.
Ferocity and purpose have been hallmarks of Woods’ storied career before health and personal distractions the last six years got in the way. They would be welcome attributes for golf fans eager to see Woods resume his quest to break all of golf’s major records.
In the wee hours Thursday, fans at home woke up to a glimpse of something familiar. Whether he backs it up the next three days with his long-awaited 15th major victory doesn’t really matter. It’s just good to know that he still can.