GULLANE, Scotland — Tiger Woods plodded along most of the day. He lipped out a putt from 2½ feet. He settled for a bunch of pars.
Then, with his final stroke, he looked like the Tiger of old.
Woods rolled in a 15-footer for birdie on Muirfield’s tough closing hole Friday, raising his putter toward the blue sky with a flourish, fully aware he was positioned again to break the longest major drought of his career.
“It will be a fun weekend,” Wood said. “This golf course is going to be difficult.”
He finished with an even-par 71 that looked pretty good under the circumstances. This was another day for surviving the perilous, rock-hard setup, and Woods walked to the clubhouse just three shots behind first-round leader Zach Johnson, one of the last guys to tee off.
Not bad, considering Woods went through a stretch of 12 holes without a birdie before stealing one at the 18th.
“I was kind of fighting it,” he said.
Lee Westwood was one of the few morning starters to put up a score in the 60s, but even he was staggering a bit by the end. After a brilliant front nine — he carded five birdies — the 40-year-old Englishman bogeyed three of the last six holes to finish with a 68.
Still, he joined Woods at 2-under 140 overall, solidly in contention for his first major title. The last English golfer to win the British Open was Nick Faldo in 1992.
“Why not enjoy it out there?” Westwood said. “It’s tough for everybody. So smile your way through.”
Woods is trying to break a drought of his own. He’s 0-for-20 at majors since the 2008 U.S. Open.
Whoever wins this one will have to earn it. The weather has been unseasonably warm and dry, the fearsome wind not much more than a gentle breeze, and it was expected to stay that way through the weekend. Even so, there weren’t many chances for going low, not on a tabletop of a course that is more brown than green, with pin conditions that some players complained were downright unfair.
Even though he started with a 69, Phil Mickelson was concerned about some hole locations being too close to the edge of slopes. He pleaded with the Royal & Ancient to let go of its ego and “just set the course up the way the best players can win.”
Mark O’Meara, the 1998 Open champion, countered that he’s played in much tougher conditions, perhaps emboldened by a surprising 67 that left him one stroke behind Johnson. But the course bit back Friday, sending the 56-year-old tumbling out of contention. He lost his ball at No. 6, leading to a double-bogey, and stumbled to the finish with a 78.
“It’s pretty simple: If you don’t hit it good in an Open championship with the rough the way it is out there, you’re going to make some bogeys,” O’Meara said. “The short game is key. You have to putt well. I did none of those well.”
O’Meara wasn’t the only old-timer to fall back. Fifty-four-year-old Tom Lehman followed a 68 Thursday with a 77 less than 24 hours later.
The young weren’t spared, either.
Jordan Spieth, the 19-year-old who last weekend became the PGA Tour’s youngest winner since 1931, made only two bogeys through his first 32 holes and was 3 under. Then came a double-bogey at the 15th, back-to-back bogeys at the next two holes, and a missed chance at No. 18 when a 4-footer for birdie slid by the cup.
Just like that, the youngster found himself at 1-over 143.
Spieth conceded that he got a little bored making all those pars.
“Yesterday, I was for some reason extremely patient with just taking my 30-footers and just trying to give myself tap-ins and not worrying about making birdies,” he said. “Today I finally got to a point where I had enough and wanted to really hit it closer. And that’s what happens when you try.”
Darren Clarke, the surprise Open champion in 2011 but mostly an afterthought since then, had no trouble making birdies on the front side. He rolled in four of them. Unfortunately for him, all that good work was wiped out by one bad hole — a quadruple-bogey 8 at the sixth. He finished with a 71 and also was at 143.
Johnson had not been atop the leaderboard at any major since he rallied to win the Masters six years ago. He took advantage of kinder conditions Thursday morning to shoot a 66, helped along by a 45-foot eagle putt. He made only one bogey despite trouble lurking around every pot bunker.
He faced much tougher conditions in the second round, the course firming up under the blazing sun that made it look more like Southern California than Scotland. Not far from the course, swimmers frolicked in the Firth of Forth, taking advantage of the northern edge of a heat wave sweeping the British Isles.
Mickelson also teed off in the afternoon, as did Rafael Cabrera-Bello (67), Miguel Angel Jimenez (68), Brant Snedeker (68) and Dustin Johnson (68).
As for Rory McIlroy, it doesn’t seem to matter when he plays. He struggled to a 79 in the opening round. The former No. 1 player in the world has been in a baffling slump since his runaway victory at last year’s PGA Championship, and it looked as though he’ll be spending another weekend at home.
Ditto for Luke Donald, who also spent time at the top of the world rankings. He won’t be moving up after this performance — a dismal 80 in the opening round followed by a mediocre 73, leaving him with a 10-over total that gave him no chance of making the cut.
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