CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (Reuters) - For a few hours at a sun-drenched Carnoustie on Thursday it felt like 2000 all over again, or 2005 or 2006 as Tiger Woods rolled back the years and captivated a heaving British Open gallery.
The 42-year-old American, absent from the sport’s oldest major since missing the cut in 2015, carded a level-par 71 which included enough glimpses of the old magic and fighting spirit to suggest a 15th major title on Sunday is not so fanciful.
It left him just five shots behind first-round leader Kevin Kisner but considering he tackled a dry-roasted Carnoustie course when it was playing as tough as it had all day it was a serious statement of intent.
When Game 47 arrived on the first tee at a little after 3pm it seemed the majority of ticket-holders deserted whoever they were watching and swarmed down the fairway.
Woods, wearing a smart blue sleeveless jersey that matched the color of the summer sky, dissected the fairway with his opening tee shot, twirled his iron in his hand and strode off with a huge media posse in tow.
His approach was clinical and he rolled in a six-foot birdie putt that was greeted by a cheer that rang round the parched expanses. One fan held a placard “Tiger Woods — The Legend Returns” and nobody was disagreeing.
Even Scottish playing partner Russell Knox, who briefly stole the American’s thunder with a superb eagle on the 14th, later described his hero Woods as a “mythical” figure.
Another birdie followed at the fourth and Woods almost conjured another at the fifth with a snaking putt after his approach had drifted into a deep green-side hollow.
Age and the chronic back trouble which has required several surgeries has mellowed the swashbuckling style which fired Woods to two titles at St Andrews twice and one at Hoylake.
But on Thursday, during the opening nine holes, he looked like a man totally in control of his game — taming a fiery course with a masterclass of course management.
Woods, who was wearing protective black physio tape on his neck, faltered after the turn as Carnoustie’s steep-sided pot bunkers took their toll, gobbling up a few errant shots.
A bogey on the 10th slowed his charge and although he responded with a long birdie on 11 he lipped-out a three-footer for par on the 13th and surrendered another shot at the 15th after another visit to a sand trap.
The stark reality is that Woods is now ranked 71 in the world, won the last of his 14 majors a decade ago and has not triumphed at any tournament since 2013.
Yet even when the wheels threatened to fall off his round, Woods dug deep to par three of the toughest closing holes on the Open circuit with a calm authority.
Woods was happy with the start to his 20th British Open and third at Carnoustie where he was tied for seventh in 1999 and finished 12th in 2007, although he felt it could have been even better had he taken advantage of the par fives.
“I played better than what the score indicates,” he told reporters because I had two eight irons into both par 5s today, and I end up with par on both,” he told a throng of reporters.
“If I just clean up those two holes and play them the way I’m supposed to play them, I think I’d probably have the best round in the afternoon wave.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis