PINEHURST, N.C. — The run was on borrowed time and everyone seemed to know it, because this was not supposed to happen. Not at this course, not at this championship, not with a career that’s spoken in the past tense and a body that’s undergone so many surgeries the next one’s free. Even now, that body tries to betray Tiger Woods, his impressive physique combating a gait that’s been hobbled by injuries and fate. Each step a labor, each stride promising to be his last. But the fleeting nature of Thursday morning was what made it special. Woods was a competitor, and any doubt to that need to look at the scoreboard, where his name resided. It was fitting in a way; Woods and Pinehurst, two things in golf that have earned the right to eclipse the constraints of time.

The hope eventually was worn down by the Carolina sandscapes and Woods’ errant approaches. A man can sustain himself on converted 12-footers for only so long, and those save attempts soon turned into three-putts. The final damage shows a four-over 74. Undone in the middle of his round by five bogeys in a seven-hole stretch. None classify as one of those “good bogeys” this tournament can produce. It looked as bad as the boxscore reads, unable to take advantage of finding the short stuff off the tee. Yet as his game went down, the truth of what came before remained: For a brief window at the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods was Tiger Woods again.

Woods birdied his first hole, the No. 2’s par-5 10th. Outdrove his playing mates, Matt Fitzpatrick and Will Zalatoris, and escaped a wayward approach thanks to a nifty pitch out of the native area, and the ensuing birdie put Woods in a tie for first. It was way, way early, just 30 of the 156 players on the course, so the visual of “WOODS” on the TV chyron was nothing more than a fun little snapshot, cute in its ridiculousness like a dog wearing a top hat. But then Woods parred the 11th and made an incredible sand save from 30 yards out at the 12th, then three more consecutive pars.

The USGA is expecting a quarter of a million people to be in attendance this week, and with each passing good shot it sure seemed like that entire projection was engulfing Woods. And as the crowd grew in size so did their collective curiosity. Could a fusion of creativity and experience and grit be enough for Woods? Was this man really refusing to be a ceremonial golfer?

That’s what he is, by the way. He’s 48 years old. Five years removed from his last win. Excluding the Masters, he’s played all four days of a tournament just once in the last four years. He is at Pinehurst only thanks to a USGA special exemption, an offer that is decoupled from aspirations of what he can still do. Yes, there are fans who hope, who believe Woods remains formidable, for greatness runs on a magnetism that has no end. But most do not expect the Woods of old. They just want to say they saw him, to show their appreciation, even if what they are watching can be tough to watch.


Tiger Woods plays his shot from the 13th tee during the first round.

Alex Slitz

For posterity, that reality eventually set in. There was a bogey at 16, a three jack at 17, back-to-back bogeys on the first and second. No need for play-by-play on what followed, only that Woods is miles from the early leaders and will need a hell of a Friday to see Saturday. Creativity and grit are nice, but this is the U.S. Open, where accuracy and bravado and blunt-force trauma reign. Endurance is a prerequisite, and by Thursday afternoon Woods looked like he was running on empty.

That tomorrow temperature could be in the high 90s won’t help. It could explain why Woods received applause and cheers and warmth no matter how many strokes it took him to finish a hole. The gallery is not blind to what Woods has suffered and where he is, how much he has left. There’s an argument these truths have deepened their affection for Woods, for while he was always popular he was never beloved like he is now. That’s why the USGA awarded him the exemption. It was a good business decision baked in respect.

Golf does not expect Woods to compete. It only hopes he can provide a flash or two, to have a moment, to remind everyone and himself of what he once was. For the first six holes, for the first two hours, Woods and Pinehurst got their moment. It was short, but what was felt was anything but fleeting.


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