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Tiger Woods goes low: 4-under through first nine holes

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com
Tiger's back … for now. (US PRESSWIRE)

Tiger Woods has twice played Royal Lytham in the Open Championship -- as an amateur in 1996 and as the defending champion in 2001 -- and both times he didn't crack the top 20. Now, more than a decade since last teeing it up in a major on this course, New Tiger looks a lot like the unflappable, robotic, tee-to-green Old Tiger. Which is to say: he's the best player on the property and if the next 63 holds look anything like the first nine, he'll finally have notched major victory number 15 after a four-year drought.

But we still have a long way to go and the golf gods have seen fit to make the conditions early Thursday eminently playable. And Tiger, in response, has seen fit to take full advantage. No. 1 at Lytham is a par 3 and Woods' first shot of the tournament found the green some 10 feet from the pin. He drained that putt and played flawlessly on the way out, regularly finding the fairway (and outdriving his playing partners Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose with irons off the tee while they hit drivers), striping his irons into the green, and rolling putts like he was practicing in his back yard. He birdied No. 4, No. 6 and No. 7 to make the turn in 30 strokes, good for 4-under and first place along with Adam Scott.

For all the talk about Woods' historic struggles at Lytham, the course in its current set up, couldn't be better suited for his game. It doesn't hurt that the fairways are effectively larger thanks to the record rainfall in recent weeks, or that his short game seems to be fully functional after some fits and starts earlier this season. Ultimately, whether Woods can sustain his focus and rhythm will determine his fate.

It's one thing to dominate on Thursday when the conditions are perfect and the flags are limp. It's something else entirely when it's raining sideways and you have to trust a game you're not completely comfortable with. Through nine holes, however, Tiger's in control.

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