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Tiger pounces on the lead
Woods quickly stepped to the front with a first-round 66.
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- From behind the seventh green at St. Andrews, all anyone could see was Tiger Woods' head bobbing up and down from the deep bottom of Shell bunker.
This was foreign soil for Woods, who famously stayed out of the sand all four rounds when he won the British Open five years ago. He leaped twice to find his way out. Then came a puff of sand, followed by his ball skirting up to the green and stopping 4 feet away for a birdie.
By the end of his round Thursday, Woods was in a familiar spot at St. Andrews.
He made seven birdies in a nine-hole stretch, then ventured twice more into bunkers and settled for a 6-under 66 that gave him a one-shot lead over Mark Hensby in the first round of the British Open.
"I still feel very comfortable out there," Woods said after his best start in a major championship since he opened with a 66 in the 2000 PGA Championship. "Even though I had it going, finishing at 6 (under) is a great start to the tournament. I'm very pleased with the way I played all day."
Jack Nicklaus could hardly say the same.
Playing his 164th and final major championship at the home of golf, Nicklaus stirred his legion of fans ever so briefly with a 7-iron that just cleared the Swilcan Burn for a 4-foot birdie on the opening hole, and a nifty chip over Shell bunker into 5 feet for a birdie at the seventh.
Three-putt bogeys on three straight holes, however, sent him to a 75 and put him in a precarious position for making the cut, his goal.
"Obviously, I'm going to have to play well tomorrow," he said. "I doubt if par will make the cut. We'll just have to see."
The Old Course was in a far more favorable mood, with only light breezes blowing across the links toward St. Andrews Bay. Provided players avoided the bunkers, they could score.
Hensby had a chance to join Woods atop the leaderboard until a 12-foot birdie on the 16th and another 12-footer on the final hole just missed, giving him a 67 and another impressive round in a major.
The 10 players at 68 included Fred Couples, who birdied his last two holes; Luke Donald of England, who thrived while playing with Nicklaus and Tom Watson; and Jose Maria Olazabal, who somehow made it around St. Andrews without a bogey.
Woods finished off his round with a 3-wood just left of the 18th green, then a 70-foot putt that dipped in and out of the hollow called "Valley of Sin" and stopped some 4 feet away for birdie.
But it was a burst of birdies in the middle of his round that got everyone's attention.
Colin Montgomerie overcame an opening tee shot into the Swilcan Burn for a 71 and was quite pleased until he saw how far behind he already trailed the world's No. 1 player.
"It's ominous who's on top of the board. Ominous," Montgomerie said. "If there's a course built for him, it's this one. He won by eight shots last time here, and who says he won't do the same again?"
Told that Woods opened with a 66 -- one shot better than his start in 2000, when he won by eight -- Nicklaus hardly seemed surprised.
"That's not fast for him. That's just a normal start," Nicklaus said.
Hensby also is becoming a regular fixture at the majors. He tied for fifth in the Masters and tied for third at the U.S. Open, joining Woods and Vijay Singh as the only players with top-10 performances in both majors this year.
Yet even Hensby issued a warning about the possibility of Woods holding the claret jug.
"People are scared to say it but it's true," Hensby said. "If he's playing well, we're all playing for second."
Woods, however, is no longer the sure thing.
Remember, he had a two-shot lead with two holes to play in the Masters and had to go extra holes with Chris DiMarco. And just when he was making a charge at Pinehurst No. 2 last month in the U.S. Open, he made two straight bogeys at critical moments and finished two shots behind Michael Campbell.
Then again, he has been playing well since missing the cut in Dallas for the first time in seven years, finishing no worse than third in his last three events. And his power is still a big advantage at St. Andrews. He had nothing more than a wedge into six holes, and twice was putting from just off a par 4.
One of those came at the ninth, when his tee shot stopped just short of the green. That was the start of four straight birdies, capped off by another monstrous drive that left him a short chip on the 12th.
But he found another bunker -- the Coffins -- on the 13th with a 2-iron slightly pulled to the left, and he was barely able to get back into the fairway. And a 5-iron from the 16th fairway turned just slightly and wound up in Wig bunker short of the green. Woods had to play away from the flag, and had to two-putt from 60 feet for bogey.
"If you catch those bunkers around here, you know a shot is going to be gone," said Olazabal, who played with Woods and Robert Allenby. "And that's what happened to him."
There was plenty worse that happened to others.
Vijay Singh had to play a shot lefthanded away from the lip of a bunker on the 16th hole and was fortunate to walk off with bogey. He still managed a 69, joining a large group that included Campbell.
Phil Mickelson got lost in the rough on his way to a triple bogey on the 15th and shot 74. Ernie Els, who thrives on the Old Course, couldn't hole any putts and made three straight bogeys on the back nine, also shooting 74.
Defending champion Todd Hamilton struggled with his putter and was at 74, too. He was hardly surprised to see Woods leading, and not just because of what happened five years ago.
"I expect him to do well in every tournament, but especially in the majors, where it takes a guy that not only has a good golf game, but understands how to play a difficult golf course," Hamilton said. "And this is a difficult golf course."
Along with two bogeys from the bunkers, Woods let two other birdies get away.
One followed a somber two minutes at noon, when St. Andrews joined the rest of the country in observing two minutes of silence to honor victims of the terrorist attacks in London last week. Woods later revealed his mother was in London the day of the bombings.
"I'm very thankful that my mom is still here," he said.
He resumed his quest for the Open with a chip on the par-5 14th that went past the hole and into the swale, costing him a good look at birdie. And he missed a 6-footer for birdie on the 15th.
Still, he was right where he wanted to be -- in the lead, and in control of the Old Course.