HOYLAKE England (Reuters) - “Glad you could make it Tiger”, one fan shouted as the 14-times major champion marched off the first tee of the Royal Liverpool course in search of a fourth British Open title on Thursday.
Another one was not so generous as the 38-year-old Tiger Woods made a hash of a bunker shot minutes later on the way to a bogey, urging the American’s ball to scuttle past the flag pole and into a tricky hollow.
Woods clearly belongs to a select group of sportsmen who divide opinion with their brilliance and occasional misdemeanors but when it comes to whipping up a frenzy of excitement, he has no peer.
American broadcaster ESPN are devoting a whole channel to Woods over the next few days and millions of words have already been filed on his prospects of victory here so soon after returning from back surgery.
Those already packed into a small stand around the first tee waiting for Tiger Time to commence at 9.05am watched his every move in almost reverential silence while scores of zoom lenses honed in on their target.
Only when stalwart Ivor Robson announced the three-times British Open champion did the cheers ring out across the sun-kissed course alongside the River Dee.
Woods offered a brief smile and a touch of his cap before putting on his game face and getting down to business.
With just two competitive rounds under his belt since the surgery in March that ruled him out of the year’s first two majors, the early signs were not promising.
But as the mercury rose, Woods responded with a scorching back nine containing five birdies in six holes to card an ominous three-under par 69.
Eight years since conquering Hoylake for his third British Open victory and six years since he last triumphed at a major, Woods offered conclusive proof that despite losing some of his aura, he is ready to fight for the old claret jug.
“It felt good to be back out there competing again,” Woods, who is contesting his first major for 11 months, told reporters.
”It wasn’t exactly the greatest of starts, bogeying the first two, and especially the second hole was a sloppy three-putt there. I ran it past the hole and blocked the second one.
“I‘m not going to be the only guy in a 72-hole event to make two bogeys. I just got mine out of the way early.”
Just as when he won at Hoylake in 2006, Woods hit irons off virtually every tee - and most of them went exactly where he aimed them.
There were signs of rust. His second shot at the first left him plugged in a bunker and he was lucky to escape with a five.
His putter deserted him on the second where he charged a birdie putt past the hole and missed the return.
Two over after two, those who believe Woods will struggle to challenge after such little competitive play would have been wearing smug expressions.
However, a rock-solid par-saving putt at the fourth followed by his first birdie at the par-five fifth and then five consecutive pars steadied the ship.
What followed on the back nine had Tiger’s fan club purring.
At the par-four 11th he sank a monster putt from off the green to return to level par and moved into the red numbers for the first time at the 12th with a nonchalant eight-footer.
“It was nice to get that putt in. It was a tough little putt. There was a clump of grass behind my ball,” Woods said of his moment of magic at the 11th that sparked his round into life.
Spearing a sensational iron shot to 10 feet from the pin on the short 13th, he knocked in another birdie and while his charge was momentarily halted by a bogey greeted with some colorful language on the 14th, Woods had the glint of an Open challenge in his eye.
With his putter on fire, two more birdies followed in quick succession before he completed his round with a couple of pars.
He was clearly irritated by some clicking cameras down the 18th fairway as he addressed his second shot, gesticulating angrily at the masses clambering for a view.
“It’s like a bleedin’ circus isn’t it?”, another broad Scouse accent opined from the throng.
He had a point.
Woods may not be the ring master he was when he was ripping up the record books a decade ago, but the thousands flocking to England’s north west coast over the weekend will be beating a path to watch the Tiger show unfold.
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Tony Goodson and Toby Davis