It was the sort of shot that we came to expect, and even took for granted, back in the day: The one with the feel of a game-changer. It was the best kind of flashback, one that promises an intriguing three days to come.
It had been a lovely morning, the sun glancing off Liverpool Bay (though still pitch-dark back on this side of the Atlantic). To no one's surprise, Rory McIlroy was already ramming putts into the back of each hole, threatening to open serious space, with three birdies on the front nine to be followed by three on the back for a six-under 66 in the first round. (Of course, that score is asterisked; the rules require Rory to now play a second round.)
Tiger Woods, meantime, had opened with consecutive bogeys. Had his peers been right? Was this a premature folly? He took one back on the fifth, but overall, his putts veered ominously awry on the front nine. Wearing a blank expression verging on a frown, Eldrick didn't have much strut at the start. The early vibe said that, Tiger-wise, this tournament could go either way.
Woods was still one over, and unreadably adrift, when his second shot on the par-four 11th hole hit the edge of the elevated green, rolled off and down and settled a few inches into the first cut. Woods now faced a 30-foot uphill putt. Not slightly uphill -- uphill. From off the green. The strategy: Just push it up there, close and get the par.
He measured. He analyzed. He stood over and swung. The ball shot off the blade, climbed with good pace, rolled as if heading for a magnet and found the hole, prompting not only a crowdburst but the first fist-pump of the year -- maybe not a Tyson jab, but a fist-pump just the same, as if maybe Woods were warming up in case he needed to summon the fist-pumps of yore over these next few days.
Just as suggestive of an interesting weekend, as the camera captured his reaction, was the facial expression that accompanied the pump: The old Tiger look, where the eyelids close ever-more-slightly and carnivorously, and he bites his lower lip and he's Tiger Woods again.
I know. He won five times last year. He's hardly a ghost. But this is a major he's playing on the course he conquered, for his late dad, in 2006. If he is going to deliver on the future he'd long ago promised us, this is the place to start.
Woods birdied four of the next five to finish three back, riding a wave of confidence -- and causing a seismic disturbance a few thousand miles away, in a town called Bristol, Conn., with backs being slapped, fists being bumped, and voices rising to whoops. Because Tiger in Form meant that The Extremely Sporting and Profitable Network had itself a golf tournament.
For the next three days, with apologies to Tina Turner, we can call this contest on the Dee Estuary "River Deep, Ratings High." Because everyone is going to be a factor on Friday -- and even more so on Saturday when, with rains predicted, no one will be able to run away. Come Sunday, a hungry Tiger will be even more likely to be within striking distance.
On Thursday, the golf gods had smiled down with nothing but sun. The leaderboard produced a fan's dream: a tasty blend of veterans and unknowns, neons and newbies. Affable Adam Scott cruised (albeit a tad bumpily) to a two-back 68; along with McIlroy, he has to be considered a favorite. The portly, loveable Jason spent his day Dufnering his way to a 69. If Dufner is in a groove, he'll be there on Sunday. There was even a resurgent Sergio Garcia sighting, also three back, with the early-morning perfect conditions helping the enigmatic almost-star.
Speaking of lesser-knowns, a lot of chianti was drained down in a sovereign state on the Mediterranean as 21-year-old former prodigy Matteo Manassero finished five under -- breaking par at an Open for the first time in four years -- and both Molinari brothers, natives of Turin, finished in the top 10. For one day, anyway, Italy can forget that first-round bow-out in the rain forests of Brazil.
On the other end of the scale, where the tragic storylines dwell, Royal Liverpool exacted its pound of flesh. This is a course where even the drop zones are a foot-and-half-deep in fescue. Thursday's second-most-painful meltdown had nothing to do with the course; Ernie Els three-putted from within a foot of the first hole, one of them a hurried backhand. The Big Easy was playing so easy, it looked as if he were playing miniature golf and had an important lunch date after the round. He's toast.
But Royal Liverpool took its biggest toll in the Bubba Watson blow-up. Yes, it does seem wrong that someone named Bubba should be in contention for a tournament played in a monarchy more accustomed to Watsons named Tom, but Bubba was two under on the front nine, and packing a little bit of a swagger -- until he found a bunker that resembled a sinkhole, and found the fescue with his backward escape. Until he three-putted for a triple bogey. Until he failed, a few holes later, to get out of another bunker, watching the ball hit the wall and dribble back into the sand.
At first, as he melted, Bubba was looking at caddy Ted Scott as if it were poor Scott's fault. But before long, Watson had a wild, glazed look in his eye, as if he'd just been Tasered. It was bad for Bubba, but it was good for the major; if a major is going to be major, the course has to derail a star or two, or it's not doing its job.
For pure sublime-to-the-ridiculous-to-the-sublime, Phil Mickelson gave us a rollercoaster ride that was…well, all Phil. His first round was basically Phil's career compressed into 18 holes: high, lows, teasing, but ultimately, not enough. In fact, the same could be said for the 18th hole alone.
Mickelson had dipped as low as two-under, poised to make a charge, before he began Phil-ing. His putts became infuriatingly short and tentative. He missed chance after chance to get back into the thing. After he sprayed a shot into the rough somewhere on the back nine, the mikes caught him saying, with an angry self-disgust that he seldom shows, "Of course. Perfect." As if the gods had pushed his shot. What else could go wrong? It did, until it finally went right on the 18th.
Trying to resurrect his sensational back-to-back three-wood shots on the 17th at Muirfield last year -- where he broke a tie and went on to claim the jug -- this time, Mickelson was going for a round-ending birdie to leave him with a good taste for Friday. He reached too far, going for his patented all-or-nothing shot, and it sailed right off the green and out of bounds.
Two shots later, he was looking at a high-degree-of-difficulty 30-foot putt for bogey. Of course, he sank it. To Phil followers, the score of 72 felt weirdly good. A few minutes later, clearly in something of a defiant "bleep decorum" mood, he admitted to ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski that "the score sucked," but insisted he'd hit the ball as well as he had in a year.
"The way I'm playing," he told Wojciechowski, "there's a good round out there."
He didn't say whether it would be his.
McIlroy desperately hopes it's his in Round Two, which has proven to be his Achilles heel for way too long. On the tour, he's first in first-day scores and 181st on second-day scores. This suggests that either he's let this thing get into his head, or he routinely spends Thursday nights eating wings and downing pitchers at the closest Hooters. But he's been so frank in discussing that psychological speed bump in the last week that it's hard not to want him to overcome it. And after what he showed on Thursday, if Round Two is simply decent, McIlroy, Scott and Woods loom as early favorites -- unless Saturday rains change the whole storyline, with so many many good golfers huddled near the top.
This much is certain: With Tiger feeling it, and the Rory Day-Two storyline, and Dufner representing we duffers, and Scott methodically driving like a machine and composing himself brilliantly at the first hint of adversity, Friday is going to see a few more folks calling in sick from work. Which is not only good for ESPN, but also good for the game.
Well played, dudes. Well played.