GULLANE, Scotland — By the time Tiger Woods finally made his way up to the 18th green, the bleachers were half empty and long shadows crept across the fairway. If Woods needed to be reminded how long this day was, the clock on the giant yellow scoreboard read 7:37 p.m. — more than five hours after he teed off.
The major championships are usually grinds, but for anyone playing in the afternoon Thursday the first round of the British Open proved more of a test than ever. The wind was blowing harder than expected, the golf course was drying up by the minute, and anything around par was a score to be respected.
And there was Woods, feeling awfully good about a 2-under 69 that had to give him hope his five-year drought in the major championships might come to an end this week on a golf course playing like it is in the middle of a drought.
"It was tough," Woods said. "The golf course progressively got more dried out and more difficult as we played. I'm very pleased to shoot anything even par or better."
A day that began with a near catastrophe off the first tee ended with a six-footer that found the center of the cup on the 18th green. Hardly surprising since Woods had 10 one-putts as he scrambled his way around the links course for one of the better scores of the afternoon.
He was three shots off the lead set by Zach Johnson, who was part of a morning surge of players who took advantage of easier conditions to set the pace. More importantly, perhaps, Woods has a morning tee time of his own Friday on a course that at least for the first day was set up to favor the early players.
"The guys that played early had a huge, huge break," Phil Mickelson said after shooting a 69 himself in the morning. "Because even without any wind, it's beyond difficult."
That Woods managed to break 70 in the afternoon was impressive enough. That he did it after nearly snap hooking a 3-wood out of bounds on his opening tee shot and having to take an unplayable when the ball nestled in a deep clump of unruly grass was doubly so.
"When I got over that tee shot I was (thinking), if I hammer it, this 3-wood is in that bunker," Woods said. "So maybe I should take something off it. Maybe I should hit 5-wood. Hence I hit a flip hook left and there she goes."
Woods somehow managed to make a bogey five on the first hole even with a penalty shot by hitting his third into a greenside bunker and getting up-and-down. It set the pattern for a day of one-putts that not only prevented the round from getting away from him, but put him in prime position going into the second round.
"We're supposed to get a different wind tomorrow," Woods said. "It will be interesting to see what the course setup is."
Just how tough was Muirfield in the afternoon? So tough that the threesome Woods was playing in became a twosome when former champion Louis Oosthuizen withdrew on the ninth hole with an apparent injury after going 4-over-par through eight holes.
So tough that his other playing partner, Graeme McDowell made two double bogeys and shot a 75 despite feeling he played well.
So tough that Woods was 1-over at the turn before one-putting the next four holes to spark a 3-under 32 on the back nine.
"Tiger played phenomenally well for his 2-under par," McDowell said. "Really ground it out well, did what he did best."
Playing well early in majors hasn't been the issue for Woods in recent times, though. Closing it out on the weekend has been, the main reason why he's still stuck at 14 major championships and hasn't won one since beating Rocco Mediate on one leg in the 2008 U.S. Open.
Last year he opened the British with a pair of 67s only to fade to a tie for third place behind Ernie Els. This year he was in the mix at the U.S. Open before shooting 76-74 on the weekend.
He came here well rested and healed up from a strained elbow that was acting up at the U.S. Open, his last competitive event. He also came with the knowledge gained from years of playing links style golf on this side of the pond, including his two wins at St. Andrews and his other win at Hoylake near Liverpool.
"They're so different, so different," Woods said. "I mean, this is almost — it's about as fast as Hoylake was. But there's knee-high rough here. And plus this golf course changes directions a lot. This is a totally different setup."
Not so different, though, that Woods doesn't like his chances of winning a fourth claret jug.