Golf: Open - Woods ready for Open warfare

Carnoustie Countdown: Terrors on the links hold no fears for world No 1 intent on extending streak of American wins
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The Independent Online
TIGER WOODS was not born the last time the Open Championship was played at Carnoustie. The 23-year-old world No 1 only started breathing four months after a fellow Stanford man, Tom Watson, had won the first of his five Open titles in 1975.

Should Woods also choose the venue of Ben Hogan's only victory in the game's oldest championship for his first Open win, it will probably not be the last. Far more mature than when Tigermania first hit Scotland at Royal Troon two years ago, Woods returns for the 128th Open a better player than when he finished third at Royal Birkdale 12 months ago.

The only things that gets worse about Woods are his odds. The American was down to 5-1 to extend the current run of US domination in the championship to five victories in a row. That would be their longest winning streak for over 60 years. "Nice stat," Tiger purred. "I like that."

Having seen the silver claret jug for the last year sitting on a sideboard down the road at Mark O'Meara's place, Woods is determined to get his claws on it. "This is the championship everybody wants to win," he said. "It is the one I like best out of all the majors because of the fact that conditions change so much. I love the bad weather."

Woods got his first sight of Carnoustie in two Scottish Open in 1995 and '96, albeit not set up in such an extreme way as this week. "I remember at the 17th hole one day I hit five-iron, five-iron and the next it was driver, driver. This is one of the best courses but also one of the fairest."

Not even Colin Montgomerie, with his victory at Loch Lomond at the weekend, can claim to be in as good form as Woods. He has won three of his last four events and was third at the US Open. When he finished third at Birkdale, he was just a shot behind the O'Meara-Brian Watts play-off.

"It was disappointing but I learned an awful lot," Woods said. "I learned I needed to control my ball flight more and how to use different techniques putting in the wind. I know Mark developed his technique in the wind but he was only able to share that with me after last year. You need experience to play links golf and I am learning all the time. There were rounds at the Dunhill Cup [in October] that there is no way I could have shot last summer."

As well as lowering his ball flight, Woods has found Tigermania has fallen off from its peak in 1997 after he won the Masters by 12 strokes just eight months after turning professional. "I came out so fast and people expected me to keep it up for the rest of my career. I am still young but I have done a lot of growing up. It was a dramatic transition from being a college student to a person recognised even in a moving car. That was a tough change at 20 years old. I am more accustomed to travelling and being a professional golfer."

He has also become accustomed to some of the benefits. Woods and a number of other Americans, including O'Meara, the US Open champion, Payne Stewart, and David Duval, are being put up this week in the Old Course hotel in St Andrews. They are being helicoptered across the mouth of the Tay unless, as on Monday, the mists descend when road and hovercraft are at their beck and call.

Last week, the group were the guests of the financier and racehorse owner J P McManus in Waterville for a busman's holiday. "We definitely didn't let the golf get in the way of the fishing," Woods said.

"We got into the pub and got on to the piano and I brought out the harmonicas," added Stewart, "and the next thing you know it was about four o'clock in the morning. We had a very good time. I think if I ran for mayor there in Waterville it would be a landslide."

Although Woods has been quoted as saying he would like "pounds 100,000 or pounds 200,000" to play in the Ryder Cup and O'Meara that he "could not care less" about the event, Stewart cannot wait to play for the first time in six years at Brookline. "I didn't say kick them in the pants," Stewart wanted to clarify, "I think I said, `grab them by the...' never mind.

"I'm very excited about being on the team. I think it's the finest golf events I've ever played in. It's intense and I love it."

Another man living to get back on the Ryder Cup team is the last European to win the Open, Nick Faldo. The Englishman's third victory came at Muirfield in 1992 but his demise this season has seen the 41-year-old plummet to 189th in the world.

Faldo believes he has one more major in him. His birthday is on Sunday but staying here for the weekend is the first task. "Experience doesn't mean a thing," Faldo lamented, "if you can't hit it straight."

l Tiger Woods has been drawn to play with Ian Woosnam and Australia's Craig Parry for the first two rounds of the Open tomorrow and Friday. The defending champion, Mark O'Meara, is joined by Ernie Els and Severiano Ballesteros, while Colin Montgomerie will play with South Africa's David Frost and last year's runner-up Brian Watts.

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