Seeing this Woods is believing

PARAMUS, N.J. -- For the artist formerly known as Tiger Woods, belief was the most potent club in the bag. The old Tiger, the pre-scandal Tiger, did not just chip and putt and create shots out of the wildest corner of his imagination like no man, woman or child before him.

Woods led the league in blind faith, too.

But on that fateful night he took off in his SUV, Woods ran over his indomitable aura somewhere between the fire hydrant and the tree. He would confess to a staggering number of marital sins, and he would drag his imploding personal life like an anchor to the golf course, where his body language would rate somewhere between Willy Loman's and Charlie Brown's.

Only Tiger didn't look that way Thursday, and he didn't sound that way, either. In fact, when he was done laying waste to Tillinghast's best at Ridgewood Country Club, playing his finest golf of the longest and loneliest of years, Woods made it clear his 6-under 65 in the first round of The Barclays was merely a small-picture advance in his master big-picture plan.

Asked if he still believes he will break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles, the one trophy above all he's wanted to claim since childhood, Woods didn't hesitate even a millisecond.

"Absolutely," he said.

Tiger explained why.

"I look at it this way," he said, "[Ben] Hogan won all nine of his [majors] at my age and older. I think for every kid out there, the goal is to get there. That is the benchmark in our sport, and that's still my goal."

Hogan won his first major at 34. At the same age, Tiger already has 14 majors and counting.

Except people stopped counting. Woods underwent surgery on his left leg, and then did the kind of damage to his marriage, family and public image that no surgeon could repair.

What used to be a death-and-taxes lock -- Tiger blowing past the Bear -- wasn't a gimme putt anymore. Woods went winless in eight consecutive majors, but it wasn't any Grand Slam failure that concerned his fans and backers the most.

It was the look. The hollowed-out look of a supreme athlete who no longer believed in his supremacy.

Woods buried that sad and pathetic figure in a Barclays bunker Thursday. He rose at 3:50 in the morn, stepped into a phone booth, emerged wearing that old cape of his, and again acted like the greatest of them all, the undisputed heavyweight champ-eeeen of the world.

This Tiger used to leave a field of grown men running for cover. And yes, it's going to take awhile before Woods marches from the clubhouse to the first tee and inspires his fellow contenders to do their synchronized cowering in his wake.

But hey, it was a pretty good start. Sent out in the lead Thursday group for the first time in his career, stuck in the 7:10 a.m. threesome with the likes of Cameron Beckman and Troy Matteson, Woods raged against his godforsaken FedEx Cup ranking -- 112th, for those scoring at home -- and birdied the first hole and four of the opening seven.

Strangely enough, Woods had felt downright awful on the driving range.

"I was hitting it all over the lot," he said.

Then he made a few tweaks, or found that phone booth, and voilà, he was Tiger Woods all over again.

"It feels good," he said. "It feels good to be able to control my ball all day like this."

Woods hadn't hit the ball this squarely over 18 holes in forever. The 65 was his lowest score in 46 rounds, and he posted it while using his driver on two holes.

From his front-row seat, Beckman said, "He drove it great, hit his irons spectacular, and he hardly missed a shot all day. It was fun to watch."

On the closing 18th, Woods broke out the driver for the first time since the fifth. He landed his ball a good Ray Guy punt ahead of his playing partners', laced into a 7-iron approach he called "a low bullet fade," and sank the 10-footer for his seventh birdie.

Woods gave the crowd the little fist pump it craved, and then signed for his 65. Three days after finalizing his divorce, Woods wasn't ready to say his was the work of a liberated man.

"Do you feel like a weight's been lifted from your shoulders?" he was asked.

"I can't really say that's the case," Tiger answered. "As far as golfwise, it was nice to put it together."

Divorce -- especially a public one -- is too complicated to be put in a small and simple box. On this day, Woods was more willing to talk about the fourth new swing of his career, and his work with his new sort-of coach, Sean Foley, whose can-do energy might help rebuild the athlete and the man.

Only Woods didn't need Foley or another swing doctor to diagnose his ills. "It was backswing, downswing and follow-through," Tiger said. "Other than that, it was good."

Woods was cautious in the first round, sticking with the 3-wood and hitting his fairways and greens. But he did believe in himself, for a change. You could see it in his shoulders, his chin and his eyes.

And in his words. The player dressed in a Gary Player shade of black still has Jack Nicklaus on his mind.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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