HOYLAKE, United Kingdom: England’s former Ryder Cup star David Howell got the 143rd British Open underway just after the crack of dawn at Royal Liverpool Golf Club on Thursday with all eyes early on riveted on a “fit again” Tiger Woods.
The player who has dominated world golf over the last 17 years with 14 major wins comes into Hoylake at a crucial juncture in his stupendous career.
The latest in a succession of swing-stress related injuries over the last few years saw him revert to back surgery in late March to relieve a pain that left him at times unable even to get out of bed.
Woods, 18 months shy of his 40th birthday, says that for the first time in years he is pain free and ready to go as he once again hones in on his lifelong obsession of matching and finally surpassing the all-time major record of 18 wins held by Jack Nicklaus since 1986.
But some believe that the American has come back too soon both on the physical and the psychological level.
The verdict could be quick in coming on Thursday as Woods has an early start at 9:04 a.m. local time (0804GMT) in the company of Argentine veteran Angel Cabrera and Sweden’s world number two Henrik Stenson.
The last time Woods played a shot at Hoylake was eight years ago as he sunk the winning putt that brought him the 12th of his majors and one of the finest triumphs of his career, coming as it did just a few weeks after the death of his father Earl.
But much water has gone under the bridge since then as Woods readily admits.
“My life is very different than what it was then,” was his own stark assessment of the eight years that separates his two outings at Hoylake.
Woods is the main story as ever, but there are several intriguing sub-plots that look set to illuminate what is being billed as one of the most open Opens of recent times.
Phil Mickelson is the defending champion at 44, Adam Scott seeks to bury the agony of two near misses in the last two years and emulate his boyhood hero Greg Norman, the last Australian to win the Open Championship 21 years ago and Rory McIlroy wants to finally come good in the tournament after six frustrating attempts.
Apart from Woods and Mickelson, the American challenge is led by world number four Bubba Watson and number five Matt Kuchar, while second ranked Stenson is out to become the first Swede and the first Scandinavian to lift the Claret Jug.
US Open winner Martin Kaymer, meanwhile, says that Germany’s World Cup triumph in Brazil could be the springboard he needs to pull off a rare Open double.
McIlroy has a morning start two groups after Woods, while Mickleson, Scott, Watson and the highly-fancied Justin Rose all have afternoon start times.
Van der Velt takes early lead
South African Dawie Van der Velt reached the turn in two under par to share the early lead in the first round of the British Open at Royal Liverpool Golf Club on Thursday.
The Texas-based 31-year-old, who won the Nelson Mandela Championship in his homeland earlier this year, dropped a shot at the second, but he regained that at the following hole and birdies at five and seven nosed him ahead.
Also on two under as the first groupings set out in perfect playing conditions were Marc Leishman of Australia, after seven holes, and Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand, Brooks Koepka of the United States and Edoardo Molinari of Italy, all after six.
First man out David Howell of England birdied three in a row from the third to get to two under, but a double bogey six at the seventh pegged him back.