PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — As Tiger Woods made his way slowly down the 11th fairway Thursday while the late-afternoon sky began slowly curling around Royal Portrush, an elderly fan shouted in exhortation at the 15-time major champion.
“Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods, you are the greatest,” he bellowed. “Tiger Woods, you are the greatest in the world!”
The silver-haired man’s high-pitched voice so pierced the air at the Dunluce Course that Woods couldn’t help but hear him. He lifted his left hand wearily to acknowledge the fan, but he kept his head down. He was giving it all he had, though it was far short of what he wanted to give.
Coming off another long layoff and playing just his fourth event since winning the Masters in April, Woods looked out of sorts and frustrated in the opening round of the 148th Open Championship.
He also was hurting.
Woods admitted as much after signing for a seven-over-par 78 that looked difficult from the very first tee shot, when he pulled the ball into the left rough and winced as he watched the offending stroke veer off line.
“I'm just not moving as well as I’d like,” Woods, 43, said, suggesting his surgically repaired back is not nearly as healthy as it was when he won the Masters in April. “Unfortunately, you’ve got to be able to move, and especially under these conditions, shape the golf ball. And I didn’t do it. I didn’t shape the golf ball at all. Everything was left-to-right. And wasn’t hitting very solidly.
“I didn’t do much out there today,” he added candidly. “I hit a lot of missed shots, they were all left. Wasn’t hitting it solid. Everything was off the heel. Just trying to scrape it around. Best I could do was seven over.”
He said that there are certain shots he just wasn’t capable of hitting on Thursday after a poor warm-up session. He planned to get treatment immediately after he fielded questions from the media.
Asked how disconcerting it is to see the health of his back deteriorate, Woods didn’t mince words. He didn’t try to put a happy spin on his condition. “Just the way it is,” he said. “Just Father Time and some procedures I’ve had over the time. Just the way it's going to be.
“As I said, one of the reasons why I’m playing less tournaments this year is that I can hopefully prolong my career, and be out here for a little bit longer.”
Thursday’s round, amid gusting winds and intermittent showers, had to feel like a long, slow ordeal. He converted just one birdie, at the par-4 15th, against six bogeys and a double bogey, posting his worst opening score in 21 career Open starts. Evidence of his struggles to execute the golf swing that worked so well at Augusta National could be found in his -4.657 strokes-gained/tee to green average on the day, which ranked 144th in the 156-player field.
For the season, Woods is +1.447 in that category, which, if he had played enough rounds this year, would rank him eighth on the PGA Tour, just ahead of U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland.
Woods’ slide started at the short par-4 fifth hole, when he played a poor approach over the green and couldn’t get up and down, lipping out the par putt from 10 feet. At the par-3 sixth, his tee shot seemed heavy and it found the collection area on the left. He chipped over the opposite side of the green, then pitched to seven feet and missed it for double bogey.
The par-5 eighth was even more disconcerting, with a third shot out of the rough that went no more than 25 yards and a fourth that he moved only another 50. He did well to save bogey. By then, it was obvious that he didn’t feel quite right and was simply doing his best with what he had.
At one point, he told one of the media contingent following along that he felt like he was in the way of playing partners Matt Wallace and Patrick Reed.
The lone bright spot was the 30-footer he holed for birdie at 15. As he went to retrieve the ball from the cup, Woods spread his arms out wide, and then he licked his right index finger and marked the air, signifying, sarcastically, that he finally got one.
A bogey at the last after coming up short of the green represented a microcosm of his day. He just wasn’t sharp enough with his short game to overcome his physical limitations.
Interestingly, he said that he struggles more at home simply doing day-to-day activities.
“If I am at home and have school pick-up and soccer practices, I’m a lot more sore than I am now,” he said. “But playing at this elite level is a completely different deal. You’ve got to be spot on. These guys are too good, there are too many guys that are playing well and I’m just not one of them.”
Quite a statement. And there was more.
“I’m not 24 anymore,” he said. “Life changes, life moves on. And I can’t devote, as I've told you this many times … I can’t devote the hours to practice like I used to. Standing on the range, hitting balls for four or five hours, go play 36, come back, run 4 or 5 miles and then go to the gym. Those days are gone, OK?
“I have to be realistic about my expectations,” he added, “and, hopefully, peaking at the right time. I peaked at Augusta well. And hopefully I can peak a few more times this year. … I’m going to have days like this, and I’ve got to fight through it. And I fought through it. Unfortunately, I did not post a very good score.”
Asked if he could see himself making his 10:09 a.m. tee time on Friday, Woods looked straight at the questioner and said, “I’ll be there.”
He’ll fight through it.