Tiger back in major hunt Woods, Huston at 65, 1 stroke ahead of 3 in British 1st round

July 17, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SOUTHPORT, England -- The memories from last year's British Open at Royal Troon remain painfully vivid for Tiger

Woods.

There was the good, including a third-round, course-record 64. There was the bad, including second and final rounds of 74. And there was the ugly, including a pair of triple bogeys and a quadruple bogey that left Woods at even-par for the tournament, tied for 24th, 12 shots behind winner Justin Leonard.

Woods took those memories and a new approach into the opening round of the 127th Open at Royal Birkdale yesterday.

"I think last year I made a couple of mistakes," he said. "The fact that I went for too much at times instead of playing a little safe and, at other times, I played a little too safe and still made a high number. So it's just one of those things where I just learned to play smart golf."

On a day when the predicted winds never materialized off the Irish Sea, leaving this tight and treacherous course more vulnerable than usual, Woods played breathtaking golf as well. The kind of golf that helped him win last year's Masters, the kind he has rarely played since.

Only a bogey on the par-4 18th hole prevented Woods from being alone at the top of the leader board. As it was, Woods tied fellow American John Huston with a 5-under 65. They were one shot ahead of 1994 Open champion Nick Price, former Masters (( champion Fred Couples and Loren Roberts.

The trend in which two Australians and three Americans have combined for the seven previous Open titles here on the Lancashirecoast continued as well. Also high up the leader board were reigning PGA champion Davis Love and Brad Faxon in a group of five at 3-under 67. Leonard started with a 3-over 73.

"I think the round I shot last year at 64 at Troon was pretty good," said Woods, 22 and still ranked No. 1 in the world despite his year-long slump. "It was very similar to this round. But I think I putted better than I did when I shot the 64. Today, I made a couple of bombs, and it felt pretty good."

Woods made seven birdies, including a 20-footer on the par-3 seventh and a 35-footer on the par-5 15th. He also set up another birdie at the 411-yard ninth hole with a 380-yard drive. But there was another difference: The round last year put him 10 shots behind Jesper Parnevik after 54 holes. This time, it put him in the hunt for his second major championship.

It was the best start ever for Woods in a major championship, five shots better than his opening round at Augusta last year, when he trailed Huston by three and wound up winning by 12. It came after Woods spent last week in Ireland with reigning Masters champion Mark O'Meara fishing and playing golf, making him more relaxed than he has seemed in a while.

It also came at a time when some, including Jack Nicklaus, were starting to question whether his staggering, newfound wealth had left Woods without much motivation to win. Some other players wondered whether Woods would have the same trouble here with the narrow fairways that he did in last year's Ryder Cup at Valderrama or at the past two U.S. Opens.

"That's the first I've heard about it," said Woods. "As you can tell, I just go about my merry way. I don't read anything anymore when it pertains to golf and stuff, especially about me, just because of the fact that people like to criticize and hypothesize. I just go out there and play my own game and see what happens Sunday."

But there haven't been many crucial final rounds for Woods since he won the last of his four tournaments a year ago at the Western Open in early July. He was in contention twice earlier this year, losing in sudden death to Billy Mayfair at the Nissan Open and winning the BellSouth Classic with a pedestrian even-par 72.

"It is just learning how to play golf," Woods said. "I think it is an evolution process that I think every player goes through. If you ask any player back in their early 20s and teens, they hit the ball pretty hard, and, as they get older, they learn to control their game."

It is a process that Couples and Price are still learning -- or relearning.

After blowing a couple of tournaments earlier this year, including the Masters when a late double-bogey opened the door for O'Meara, Couples won the Memorial in late May. Price has won only once -- last year's MCI Classic -- after getting to No. 1 in the world four years ago, when he won the British Open and PGA Championship.

"I still think I have the desire, which I think is the key," said Price, 41. "I still love playing the game. Life has been an absolute pleasure the last year and half, two years. It has been frustrating because my putting has not kept me at the strength I was playing at in the early '90s."

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