HOYLAKE, England -- After he hit his tee shot at the fifth hole -- a low, right-leaning, sickly number with a 2-iron -- Tiger Woods clenched his teeth, then stepped to the side of the tee box, into the shadows. There, he pantomimed the swing that hasn't been seen in a major championship this season.

"It wasn't exactly the greatest of starts," Woods said.

But by the time the fifth hole was over, he had his first birdie. And by the time the first round of the British Open was complete, Woods was in a place that used to be so familiar but recently has seemed foreign: right in the mix. His 3-under 69 sat three shots off the lead of Rory McIlroy, but it featured a Woods-like stretch of five birdies in six holes, and a little bit of that don't-forget-who-I-am swagger.

Surprised?

"It wasn't that long ago," Woods said. "I did win five times last year."

None, of course, was a major; that last happened six years ago at the U.S. Open. But Woods's performance Thursday at bright, sunny Royal Liverpool Golf Club led to one simple conclusion: He is not hampered by his back, on which he underwent surgery March 31. And that allowed him to do some old-school Woods things, even though he had just two competitive rounds in the past four months.

"I knew I could do it," Woods said.

And there was that swagger, defiant when cast against recent results. His only two competitive rounds since March 9 were of 74 and 75 in the Quicken Loans National last month at Congressional, where he missed the cut. Miserable, in other circumstances. Encouraging, he said, in these, because he knew his back could handle whatever swing he had to make. It's what he needed to know before the British.

"I was able to go out there today and play," Woods said.

He made the turn at 1 over after opening with two bogeys, failed to birdie the par-5 10th, and then hit his approach at 11 into a little swale short and right of the green.

"Tough little putt," Woods said, because his ball was up against a tuft of grass near the edge of the rough.

Yet he used his putter to cover those 30 feet or so, and the ball dropped for birdie -- and a till-then dormant fist pump. From there, he was off: a 6-iron to 5 feet at 12, a replica of that shot from the tee at the par-3 13th, a 7-iron to 12 feet at the par-3 15th, and a nice up-and-down from the side of the green at the par-5 16th, birdies all.

"At Congressional, I made some just terrible mistakes mentally," Woods said. "My decisions weren't crisp. I wasn't decisive enough. Today was totally different, and consequently I shot a better score."

The score wasn't quite the 67 that he shot to begin the 2006 Open, which he won. And there is all sorts of room for improvement.

"I need to get everything a little bit better," he said.

And then he headed to the practice range.

Meanwhile, McIlroy had a bogey-free 66, but there's no telling what he might do the day after he opens a tournament sublimely.

"It's not like I've shot good scores in first rounds and haven't backed them up before," he said. "I'm used to doing that. I just haven't done it recently."

McIlroy opened the Memorial with a 63 and followed with a 78. He opened last week's Scottish Open with a 64 and followed with a 78. Six times in his last eight Friday rounds he has failed to break 40 on either the front or back nine.

McIlroy admitted earlier in the week that the second-round issue "just got in my head." But he is somehow at peace on Thursdays, and it showed here. He birdied three of the four par 5s -- considered a key at Royal Liverpool. But his day got pointed in the right direction when he made a beautiful 6-iron swing from 190 yards out at the second, sticking it to tap-in range.

"That's the advantage, sometimes, of having a high ball flight in links when there's no wind," McIlroy said. "You're able to bring it down like that and stop it close to the pin."

Matteo Manassero, just 21, was a shot back. Top-ranked Adam Scott, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia and brothers Francesco and Edoardo Molinari were among the seven players at 68.

  • Phil Mickelson, the defending champion, hit his second shot out of bounds on 18, had to retrace his steps and hit again, then hit that shot into the high rough next to the green. But he got up and down for a bogey 5 and a 74.

  • Ernie Els had a bad day. On the first hole, his drive hit a fan and drew blood and then, possibly still shaken by that, he three-putted from 2 feet. Els finished with a 79.

    The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

    LEADER BOARD
    After first round
    Royal Liverpool Golf Club; par 72
    Player Score Par
    Rory McIlroy 66 -6
    Matteo Manassero 67 -5
    Seven tied at 4 under
    Notables
    Sergio Garcia 68 -4
    Adam Scott 68 -4
    Tiger Woods 69 -3
    Tom Watson 73 +1
    Phil Mickelson 74 +2
    Full leader board, PAGE 5