Tiger Woods isn't at the top of the leaderboard, but the world’s top-ranked golfer is sitting in position-A heading into the second round of the 2013 British Open, and he undoubtedly knows it.
Playing in the difficult afternoon conditions at lightning-fast Muirfield on Thursday, Woods fired a two-under 69 that was actually a far better round than the score would indicate. It was also Tiger’s fifth sub-par opening round in the past six majors.
"It was tough," said Woods. "The golf course progressively got more dried out and more difficult as we played. And I'm very pleased to shoot anything even par or better."
The effort left him three shots behind, but come Friday, the tables will be turned on the majority of the leaderboard that sits in between him and overnight leader Zach Johnson.
Tiger gets the early second-round start on Friday and with it likely an easier Muirfield that won’t play nearly as firm and fast as it did late Thursday. In fact, with the heat turned down and perhaps some easier pin placements to hunt, Woods will ultimately find the scoring conditions much friendlier.
Given that, if he plays with the same patience, accuracy and determined putting he showed on Thursday, an even lower score in the 60s will be forthcoming and Woods could very well shoot up the leaderboard and position himself nicely for a run at his 15th major triumph and first since 2008.
"It all depends on what they do," he said. "I don't know what they're going to do with the golf course, if they're going to keep it dry and fast and let it get to where it is this afternoon. Are they going to put some water on it? They put some water on it in the practice rounds. When we came out this morning there was moisture on them, but they dried out in the afternoon."
By contrast, the majority of the golfers Tiger will chase in the beginning of the day will end it playing on the same fast, firm and trampled Muirfield successfully tamed by Woods but few others with p.m. starts.
Only one player—the relatively unknown Shiv Kapur—managed to shoot a lower round than Tiger did in the afternoon and that was only by one shot. Likewise, no one came close to Woods' four birdies on the difficult back nine.
In fact, the majority of the players who drew afternoon starts struggled on Muirfield’s race track greens and fairways, including Woods’ playing partner, Graeme McDowell, who posted a four-over 75.
Even if the R&A takes some measures to soften Muirfield on Friday, it can’t control the weather and it’s almost a certainty that the links layout will bake out yet again.
That spells a much tougher test for the first-round leaders who will play on a crusty and quick course just as Woods did in the first round. If the wind picks up, things will get even tougher for the likes of Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Brandt Snedeker and Dustin Johnson—all of whom managed strong morning rounds.
That spells a major advantage for Woods who already passed the difficult Muirfield afternoon examination that awaits much of his competition Friday.
Many of those players also lack the experience and British Open success boasted by Woods, who owns three Claret Jugs among his 14 major titles. In fact, of the 20 players who finished the first round under par, including Woods, only four own an Open Championship title—and two of those are over 50 years of age.
By the same token, of those same 20 golfers, only eight have won a major of any kind and only four—Woods, Mickelson, Mark O’Meara and Angel Cabrera—have more than one to their credit.
Certainly others with significant pedigrees will come from the pack and challenge the top 20, but when considering those directly behind, alongside or ahead of Woods, experience and accomplishment is most assuredly on his side.
How Woods plays on Friday when he has the benefit of an early Muirfield start remains to be seen. Yet because he was so sharp and focused on Thursday, the advantage is his tomorrow, no matter what the leaderboard says tonight.
*For complete scores, visit PGA.com