HOYLAKE, England — From a little hill directly behind the 14th green at this year's
First would come the Aging King. Two groups later, the Apparent Heir. The excitement builds along the ropes for the appearances of AK and AH,
Thursday's first round at Royal Liverpool is played in a tropical setting. Soft clouds drift overhead, gentle breezes keep temperatures in the mid-70s. People who don't wear shorts are sorry. This is England, but it could have been Tahiti. Weather experts here say they expect another day like this. In 2017.
The gorse surrounds and cushions us like a blanket. Finicky nitpickers say this isn't gorse, that it is just a lot of long grass with some dandelions sprinkled about.
Whatever it is, it certainly messes up golf scores. If you find your ball in it, you often can't hit it out. So, if it is that crucial on these links courses that bring us one-fourth of the major golf championships each year, it deserves to be called something better than "weeds" or "junk."
So, cushioned by our gorse and warmed by the western England sun (you will never read that sentence anywhere again), we watch as AK's approach shot to this par-four, 454-yard hole skids past a pot bunker and comes to rest 15 yards off the green and 30 from the pin.
Woods, rallying from bogeys on the first two holes, marches toward the green with no signs of a man who had serious back surgery March 31. We wonder which is greater, his determination or his pain threshold.
He has just birdied the last three holes, one of them a long putt from off the green. As has been the case since his hunt for Jack Nicklaus' record 18 major titles has turned into cannon fodder for the doubters, including this gorse-sitter, he is deadly serious.
This hole is a bit of a setback. For some reason, he chips high and right of the pin. The lie is good and the line to the pin is unimpeded, but he leaves himself 25 feet away and takes a bogey when his putt stops inches short.
That puts him back at one under, but he makes birdies on the next two holes and starts his quest for major title No. 15 — and his second straight British at Hoylake — with an excellent three-under 69.
Not bad for a guy who could still be getting around in slippers and a hospital gown.
We had to decide whether to follow Tiger or wait for Apparent Heir. We stayed. Mostly, it was just too tough to leave this splendor in the gorse.
AH brought similar crowds and buzz with him. McIlroy is the lovable lad from Northern Ireland, who, at 25, trails AK by 13 years and 12 major titles. He knocks his second shot onto the green and 30 feet past the pin.
He strolls up the little incline leading to the green like somebody with nary a care in the world. He might just as well have been collecting his skateboard.
What a contrast. Tiger's jaw is always set so tight you hope he has good dental insurance. McIlroy doesn't so much walk as he free-flows.
The greenside scoreboard says McIlroy shares the lead at five under with Italy's
McIlroy two-putts No. 14, then gets up and down for par on the par-three No. 15 with a masterful chip off a tight lie that stops two feet away.
Then we get to No. 16, the 577-yard par-five noteworthy in Woods' 2006 win as the only hole at which he used a driver the entire tournament — and there just once.
McIlroy doesn't even pause over his bag. Out comes driver, boom goes drive. The crowd knows. Everybody instantly knows. There is that sound, the immediate trajectory.
The drive is an "oh my God." Matter of fact, that's exactly what several in the gallery gasp.
On the 577-yard hole, McIlroy is 372 yards out with 205 left. When the golfers get to their balls, Hideki Matsuyama is more than 100 yards back of McIlroy and Jordan Spieth is at least 75.
McIlroy gets up and down from a greenside pot bunker for birdie and finishes as the day's sole leader at six-under 66.
He might have been happy to trade scores with Woods. The pressure in golf tournaments comes on the last nine holes. Except for McIlroy. His throat-tightening occurs on Fridays. "Freaky Fridays," as reporters have labeled them and McIlroy has agreed.
"Ah, the elephant in the room," he says, as the question is raised by reporters.
In 2010, he shot 63 in the opening round at St. Andrews and 80 the next day. Last week in the Scottish Open, he shot 64 in the first round and 78 in the second. This season alone, he is 55 under par in his first rounds and 15 over in his seconds.
"When you go back out on Friday, after a good score," McIlroy says (rationalizes?), "you know what you can do on the golf course. So you are going out with some expectations, compared to Thursdays, when you are going out with not many."
Friday, the rest of the field will face making the cut. McIlroy will face the music.
One tip for him. Stay out of the gorse. It's hard to get out; plus, it is better used as a place for sportswriters to lounge.