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Tiger Woods celebrated his closing eagle with an emphatic fist pump. (Photo: AP)
Tiger Woods celebrated his closing eagle with an emphatic fist pump. (Photo: AP)

Woods battles through errant shots to stalk the leader

Tiger Woods found himself in trouble several times on Thursday as he visited a pot bunker, a dusty path and that wispy rough. But the ending to his opening round was pure Tiger, as he drained a 25-footer for eagle that left him just one shot back.

HOYLAKE, England (AP) -- Outside of the royals, few people provide more tabloid headline fodder over here than Tiger Woods.

The chance of fireworks between the Yank and hometown hero Nick Faldo, a delicious story line the newspapers were hyperventilating over all week, disappeared the moment the two shook hands on the first tee Thursday. And then the golf course intervened, putting enough distance between them soon enough to make any further talk of a feud irrelevant.

By then, the best the tabloids could hope for was something along the lines of, "Tiger Sizzles After Duel with Faldo Fizzles!"

Fortunately, Woods did not disappoint.

He provided more than his fair share of pyrotechnics the rest of the way, making one birdie from behind a signpost at No. 11 and another at No. 17 from the wrong fairway. Next were par saves from shin-high rough and a greenside pot bunker that required two mighty swings to excavate his ball. And just for punctuation, there was the 25-footer for eagle at the last hole to complete an opening-round 67, which left Woods just a stroke off the lead.

"I don't know who it was," he recalled afterward, "but someone made the same putt earlier this morning. I was watching it on the telecast. I doesn't break at the end. ...

"Normally," Woods added, "I would have given that hole away if I hadn't seen that putt earlier in the morning."

While Woods was back at his digs watching the telly, his peers were showing Royal Liverpool about as much respect as the local muni. A heat wave has parched the fairways and turned them the color of 12-year-old Scotch. The rough in some spots is thinner than Jack Nicholson's hair. But watching his opponents tear up the place didn't make Woods anxious, just eager.

"We started at the beginning of the day saying it wouldn't surprise us if 7- or 8[-under par] was leading," he recalled.

What might have surprised a few spectators on the first tee were the cordial greetings he and Faldo exchanged. The two are hardly friends, and were never really contemporaries, though the Englishman was the dominant player in the majors, especially at the Open and Masters, in the pre-Tiger era. So they had that much in common.

Faldo, at 49, is 19 years older than Woods and now saves most of his best shots for TV. It was his analysis of Woods' swing during a telecast 18 months ago that set off the current round of hostilities, prompting a few wisecracks that Shingo Katayama of Japan, the third member of the group, was along just to play the role of Switzerland.

As it turned out, no mediation was necessary. Woods and Faldo made up briefly on the practice green Wednesday and sealed it with a very public handshake before teeing off. But while Woods might forgive, he never forgets.

In a bid to shake Faldo right off the bat, he ran his opening putt for birdie 4 feet past the hole -- "that mistake," Woods called it afterward, as if it was the only one -- and missed the comeback for a bogey. But Faldo made double-bogey at No. 2 and added three more bogeys in a four-hole stretch before the group made the turn.

Part of Woods' genius, though, is that he never lacks for incentive. At the U.S. Open in June, his last major, Woods missed the cut for the first time in his pro career, and that prompted questions about how he would deal with the inevitable distractions following the death of his father, Earl, in May. As if that wasn't motivation enough, there was also a raft of stories trumpeting the transformation of one of Woods' former whipping boys, Phil Mickelson, into a full-fledged rival.

Mickelson's 69 was already posted by the time Woods headed for the back nine at 1-under, and even if the four additional strokes he shaved off par after that was a direct response, he'd never admit it. He never acknowledges reacting to anything other than his own competitive drive, and that's part of Woods' genius, too.

After the opening-hole gaffe, Woods played smart, disciplined golf, hitting irons off just about every tee except the 16th. There, he pounded his driver so far left that he played his next shot from the 17th fairway, but calmly found a way to craft another birdie.

Just after he and Faldo exited the scoring trailer -- the Englishman pointing his caddie toward the parking lot and leaving without talking about his round of 77 -- someone asked Woods, "Is your confidence back to where you want it?"

"Shooting 67 makes me feel good," he replied through a widening smile, "yes."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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