GULLANE, Scotland (Reuters) - No wonder the British Open galleries still flock in their thousands to watch Tiger Woods prowl a links course.
There is rarely a dull moment when the American 14-times major winner is going about his business and that proved the case again at Muirfield on Thursday as he went toe-to-toe with a sun-scorched course and came out just about on top.
His two-under par 69, compiled during a scorching afternoon that made putting on the glass-fast greens a treacherous activity, left him three behind leader Zach Johnson.
“There wasn’t a lot of talking out there today because we’re trying to grind it out on that golf course, and it’s one of those courses where it just got so difficult,” Woods told reporters.
“As the golf course dried out it got quick. Some of these putts today, I mean, I putted the ball off the green today. And it really wasn’t that bad a putt.”
World number one Woods, bidding to end a five-year major drought, made five birdies, four of them on the back nine, but he needed some stunning up-and-downs early on to stop his opening round careering out of control.
A reverential hush descended over the crowds lining the first fairway as Woods paced around the first tee and there was stunned disbelief as the 37-year-old lashed an ugly three-wood miles left of the fairway.
His ball may have ended up in Edinburgh but for the intervention of a tree but it rebounded into rough so thick that Woods, once he had waded through the crowds and up a bank, declared it unplayable and took his medicine - a penalty drop.
He then crunched a majestic iron shot from a scruffy lie but found himself in a greenside bunker from where he played a breathtaking shot to within a couple of feet to avoid one of a number of card-wrecking scores witnessed on the first hole.
“It was amazing,” Woods who has developed a habit for awful first holes in recent years.
”When I got over that tee shot, I was, if I hammer it, this three-wood is in that bunker. So maybe I should take something off it. Maybe I should hit five-wood.
“Hence I hit a flip hook left and there she goes. I took an unplayable, hit the shot where I wanted to, hit it right of the hole and I got up and down.”
Woods found another deep bunker with his second at the third but responded with a deft sand shot to save par.
A superb tee-shot at four set up his first birdie of the day but Woods, playing with Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen, who retired with a neck-related injury after eight holes, was clearly fighting to keep himself in check.
The ugly side of his nature surfaced on the sixth where he swore loudly after leaving an approach short.
He then used another expletive in earshot of many young children as he paid the penalty for trying to be too cute with a dinked chip and saw the ball fail to climb the slope and roll back into the rough.
It was all proving a bit trying for Woods who missed birdie chances at seven and eight before draining a par-saving putt at the ninth, shortly after Oosthuizen quit with a neck injury.
Reaching the turn at one over, Woods rolled up his sleeves and began to make inroads.
He slid in a birdie putt at the 10th, then a spiraling approach shot set up another birdie at 11 and by the time he holed a swinging putt on 13 Woods was clearly in the mood.
A momentum-jolting bogey followed at the 14th but Wood responded with a tap-in birdie at the par-five 17th having gone tantalizingly close to an eagle.
“It was tough. The golf course progressively got more dried out and more difficult as we played,” he said. “And I‘m very pleased to shoot anything even par or better.”
Reporting by Ed Osmond