Top Five from Thursday at the 2013 Open: Tiger recovers from rough start, fires solid 69
By Stephanie Wei under British Open
Tiger Woods, y'all

Tiger golfs his ball well

After hooking his opening tee shot into the thick rough at Muirfield, Tiger Woods hit a provisional ball on the first hole of the Open Championship on Thursday afternoon. He also pulled his provisional, but not as wide left, but with the aid of marshals and fans, Woods found his first ball and took an unplayable. Though he scrambled for a bogey, it wasn’t exactly an ideal start and it made you think, “Ugh, here we go again!”

Not so fast! After all, there’s a reason why Tiger Woods is arguably the greatest golfer to have ever played the game.

What happened on the first shot of the day?

“When I got over that tee shot, I was thinking, if I hammer it, this 3-wood is in that bunker,” said Woods after posting a two-under 69. “So maybe I should take something off it. Maybe I should hit 5-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.”

Even though he birdied the par-3 no. 4, the first five holes didn’t look promising, but Woods, who is probably the best grinder in the history of the game, kept on trucking.

It appeared like Tiger was in trouble again on no. 6 when his first chip came up about a foot of being perfect and rolled off the green and into the rough. (A shot I’m familiar with and have hit several times over the past week when I was conducting my “research” in links golf.) His second chip was much better and he rolled in the putt to save bogey.

That was the game-changer. The momentum carried over to no. 7, and for the final eleven holes, he was virtually flawless, rolling in four birdies and just one bogey. He had a phenomenal sand save on no. 12, with one foot in and the other kneeling on the grass, where he knocked it to about five feet.

With the sun shining and temperatures over 80-degrees and the wind blowing, the firm and fast conditions at Muirfield made the golf course even more difficult to tackle. It was a grind. It’s just mentally exhausting because you have to stay so focused and and consider all the possibility since the elements are a factor.

“The golf course just kept drying out,” said Tiger, who drew the afternoon wave on Thursday. “And it was so hard to get the ball close, even lag putt and try to get the ball the right speed. It was very difficult. And I tried to keep the ball in front of me as best I could. And hole a putt if I could, if I could keep it below the hole. But, again, it was so difficult to get the ball even below the hole and in the right spot.”

Again, you have to miss it on the right side of the hole and STAY PATIENT.

Woods tees off on Friday morning in the second round, which usually bodes for calmer, more mild conditions, but it’s always a toss-up in Scotland. And there’s the question of whether the R&A will water the fairways and greens, as the course almost got away from the organizers’ control.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do with the golf course, if they’re going to keep it dry and fast and let it get to where it is this afternoon,” said Woods. “Are they going to put some water on it? They put some water on the practice rounds. When we came out this morning, there was moisture on them, but they dried out in the afternoon. And also we’re supposed to get a different wind tomorrow. It will be interesting to see what the course setup is tomorrow.”

In other words, get some water on that course!

Meanwhile, the other stories of the day:

*Zach Johnson: After losing to 19-year-old Jordan Spieth in a playoff at the John Deere Classic last Sunday, Zach is atop the leaderboard again, posting a five-under 66 in the first round to take a one-shot lead over Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Mark O’Meara. Johnson just played incredibly solid golf and did what he needed to do — let’s all say it at once: STAYED PATIENT.

“I was talking to some others prior to coming in here, what I have learned this tournament — solid shots, solid, crisp shots, you may not get the proper bounce every time, but for the most part it turns out okay,” said Zach in his post-round presser. “A mis-hit shot, you can get a bad break or end up in a very unfortunate position. So with that being said, striking the ball solid is key. And the only way to do that is to continue to remain patient. I think that’s the biggest word of the week.

“You don’t know what the course is going to do as far as the elements involved. I know the forecast looks tremendous, someone said it actually might get warmer, which is bizarre. So you’ve just got to continue to plod along. I don’t know if there’s a perfect formula for it. However, I do know that patience and perseverance are the two ingredients that are required to get to that finish line. So that’s going to be my approach. I don’t mean to dumb it down or make it too simple, but I think you kind of have to in some regards. And make putts. Anytime you see someone hoist the Claret Jug, it’s because they’ve obviously fought the elements properly, but they’ve putted pretty darn good, too.”

Crap. Duh. I’m kicking myself.

[Aside: So, I have to bring this up because it’s killing me. I’ve been planning on putting money on Zach for a while — he played well at last year’s Open and he’s obviously striking it well and he’s a grinder. I’ve never done put actual cash down at the Open, though I’ve always intended to, and I ran into a bunch of Tour types at the betting shop, and one well-known swing coach asked to see my betting sheets (the pieces of paper with names of the guys I wanted to back with their odds and how much, etc.).

When he got to Zach’s name, he grimaced and said, “Oooo, Zach Johnson, I don’t know him about… there are a lot of right pins on that course and he only moves the ball right-to-left.” Naturally, that messed me up and I immediately crossed his name out. After all, this esteemed swing coach would definitely know more than me.

When I saw him in passing today, I smiled and said, “Zach Johnson!” We had a laugh. He said, “Hey, there are three more rounds…How did Webb Simpson do? I picked him.”

I replied, “A few over.” ]

*The Old Guys, Mark O’Meara, Tom Lehman and Todd Hamilton (and Miguel Angel Jimenez and Angel Cabrera almost fall under this category): These three past Open champs are on the first page of the leaderboard. Why? Because they understand links golf, and with the firm conditions, the ball is rolling forever, which helps with their disadvantage with regard to distance.

“I guess on the first tee my thought was, look, you know, I realize I’m 56, but I also realize that I’ve won The Open Championship,” said O’Meara, who shot a four-under 67. “And I also know that links golf is a little bit different than playing in the Masters. It’s a little bit different than playing in the U.S. Open. It’s a little different than a PGA. From the standpoint that experience I think plays a big factor in how guys play. And links golf it’s not just about power, where a lot of the game today is about bombs away, and hit the ball a long way and play it up in the air. Links golf is about creativity, shot process, thinking about where you need to land the ball…

“I’ve seen the most horrendous conditions you can think about playing golf in out there. But today the wind really didn’t blow that hard. I understand the course is dry. It’s firm. It’s fast. And the greens got pretty quick for an Open Championship. But just in my estimation, I don’t know, I mean, I didn’t see it being unfair, in my opinion. So I guess if I had shot 8-over I might come in and tell you guys it was unfair. But to me I just didn’t see that. So I’m pleased to get off to a good start, and hopefully I can play well tomorrow morning.”

*Phil Mickelson: Lefty said he had discovered the secret to success with putting in links golf, and apparently it worked on Thursday. Phil, who is coming off his first win in the UK last Sunday at the Scottish Open, shot a respectable two-under 69, which included a three-putt on no. 18 from about 15 feet.

“I’m trying to lag it, because I know it’s quick,” he said. “I’m trying to lag the one on 17 and it still goes six or seven feet by. No. 8 is probably the worst one that you’ll see if you watch it on TV. It won’t stop until it collects in a little level area about eight feet away, six, eight feet away.

“Very difficult conditions and playing early gave us at least a fighting chance. And you can get off to a good start here, you can birdie the par-5, so you can shoot a reasonable score. But we got let go of our ego sometimes and just set the course up the way the best players can win.”

When he referred to “our ego,” he wasn’t talking about his own, rather the R&A championship committee that is setting up the golf course.

*Jordan Spieth: This kid is unbelievable. I didn’t pick him for any of my pools because I assumed he’d be exhausted with not just winning on the PGA Tour for the first time, but being the first teen to ever accomplish such a feat. But, I forgot it’s a bit different in the UK, where he wouldn’t be bombarded with press requests and go through the whole dog-and-pony show. I mean, if this were the U.S. Open, that would be the case, but he’s been able to chillax and go about his practice relatively unbothered.

Playing in his Open Championship debut, Spieth shot a solid two-under 69. No big deal. Now, of course, Spieth has some experience with links golf. He played the Junior Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and he was a member of the victorious Walker Cup team at Royal Aberdeen in 2011.

The firm and fast greens? Bring it on.

“I’ve played on faster,” said Spieth when asked if this was as fast as he’d seen greens in Scotland. “To be honest, this is more what I like…I putted well today. I feel more comfortable on these greens. I don’t think of the speed, I feel the speed. Last week I reminded myself to hit it. This week I can go over and see the putt and feel it, which is obviously going to lead to better putting, hopefully.”

(Photo: Paul Cunningham, USA TODAY Sports)