“Smile” came the plea from a wee lad in the three-rows-deep gallery as Tiger Woods, stony-faced and with his head bowed, slowly approached the fourth tee at St Andrews.
An hour into his first round and the one major Woods just couldn’t miss — a British Open at the home of golf — was beginning with a real grind.
A tough-to-watch start had seen Woods chunk his second shot into the Swilcan Burn, before he missed a short putt to run up a double-bogey. Then came a three-putt for bogey at the third hole.
By the time he had dropped two more shots at No. 7 after driving into a bunker on the adjacent hole, Woods was 6-over par and looking as forlorn as the spectator following the 15-time major winner while dressed in a tiger onesie.
He finished on that number, with the 6-over 78 matching his second-worst round at golf's oldest major and giving him a remote chance of making the weekend in what might be his final Open at St. Andrews.
Perhaps it was too much to expect Woods to contend this week, despite being one of the greatest players to pick up a golf club.
After all, he is playing on a right leg pieced together from a February 2021 car crash. It is only his third event of 2022 — all of them have been major championships — and first in nearly two months.
The 46-year-old Woods said this week he has no idea how long he’ll be able to compete physically at the highest level because of his battered body. So it meant he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play St. Andrews, perhaps for one last time on the stage where he won two of his three British Open titles.
That might explain the size of the cheers he received when walking onto the practice putting green beside the first tee, where he did some light stretches for his right leg, and then the first tee itself.
Surely no other player ranked No. 996 has had such a reception.
And shouts of “Go on Tiger” followed him as he walked down the first hole, where he reached a tee shot that had settled in the middle of the fairway but in a fresh divot. Woods looked away after hitting his approach shot as dust flew up off his club face. When he turned back around, he saw his ball bounce into the burn guarding the green.
He took a penalty, pitched over the water and badly missed a putt of about 4 feet. It was a sign of things to come.
Though there was no obvious sign of a limp, Woods walked gingerly along St Andrews’ uneven terrain throughout a painfully slow round that took more than six hours to complete and was played in nothing more than a light breeze. His long, often silent waits at tees gave him time to ponder a slew of erratic shots on the front nine, which at least ended with a birdie after getting up-and-down from behind the green.
Woods displayed more emotions coming back, his competitive juices perhaps starting to flow. His frustration was evident after failing to hole a short putt for birdie at No. 12, and there was a wry smile after missing his par putt on the next.
A drive of more than 400 yards at the par-5 No. 14, which he two-putted for birdie, prompted whoops and hollers from the gallery, and there were more of them on the 18th when his drive rolled onto the front of the green, only for the ball to drop back into the Valley of Sin.
It summed up his round that he could only make par from there.