James Lawton: Hungry Tiger Woods shows class and control that could end the famine

Woods may have found the right circumstances to win 15th major title

Muirfield

This may be the most brutal workplace golf has ever  produced in quite such a beautiful setting but on the scorched, bullet-quick greens and arid fairways there is a growing conviction.

It says that here on the East Lothian coast Tiger Woods might just have met with salvation.

After five years he may have found the right circumstances and the perfect mood of resolution to win the 15th major title that would carry him to within three of the mark of the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus.

While it is true you would not have found too many backers of this possibility when Woods’ recently renovated putting stroke broke down twice for what might have been shattering bogeys, the belief was blazing again when he finished a round of almost supernatural patience with a serene  approach shot and a 12-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole.

That restored him to two-under and a share of the clubhouse lead and provoked in his playing partner, and former US Open champion Graeme McDowell, the kind of admiring tribute that has been rare in the locker rooms of big-time golf since the Tiger’s fateful collision with a fire hydrant near his Florida home on Thanksgiving Night in 2009.

For two days McDowell had fought alongside Woods in ever worsening conditions – and yesterday in the face of a wind coming from precisely the opposite direction from the day before. The Ulsterman is six shots worse off but convinced he had seen a master-class of survival from the man who once intimidated all rivals by simply stepping on the first tee.

McDowell said: “He has been very, very impressive these last two days. He will not be far away this weekend the way he is playing. His iron play has been extraordinary. It is the flight control that he has in his irons. He just hits the shot you are supposed to hit at all times.

“He plays the golf course very conservatively, which is what I expected him to do because it’s incredible the way he controls the flight, so much so that I’m not sure there is a better iron player in the world. He’s also putting exceptionally well. I’ve lost count of how many 8-, 10-, 15-footers he’s made for par over the last few days.

“There’s no doubt about the fact that he has just hung in there with the putter. This golf course is very tough and it’s going to keep asking questions of everyone.

“I just can’t tell you how many comebacks for pars he’s made after leaving them short or blowing them by.

“He’s just managing the course and staying alive. I had to double check with his caddie Joe that the driver head cover actually had a driver underneath because it actually hasn’t seen the light of day, not even close.

“His iron play has been just devastating. I said to him on the 18th green, ‘That was a clinic you put on these last two days. That was very impressive.’ He’s going to be very, very dangerous.”

He is also, it is clear enough, going to be very relaxed in the kind of role which could hardly have been anticipated in those rampant days when the patrons of the great golf courses saw him as an unprecedented challenge to the old mystique of the game. Courses needed to be Tiger-proofed back then. Yesterday he made a joke of his new willingness to go carefully to the longed-for return to major success.

He was asked “How many drivers did you hit?” and a startled questioner was told, “I’ve hit, I believe, eight.” The next question was “Where?” Woods said “On the range” before striding into the sunshine with a huge smile on his face.

Yes, he had insisted, he was ready to inch his way back on the road of challenging Nicklaus’s historic mark. “I’m just going to continue plodding along, continue being patient, putting the ball in the right spots and trying to score well. We’re not going to get a lot of opportunities out there, but when I have I’ve been able to capitalise, and hopefully I can keep on doing that.

“I’m not sure what scoring it is going to take to win, it’s one of the things that has been changing daily. I’ve played practice rounds early and there have been quite a few ball marks out there. Then we got out there yesterday and there were none. At a couple of holes we were hitting six-irons that were going 275, 280. Today I hit a sand wedge 180 at one hole and you just have to realise you are at the mercy of what the golf course does.

“It’s so quick so much depends on where you land and what side of the slope it is. Is it on the backside or the front side? That determines a lot how far the ball is going to go and what is certain is that everyone here is facing a very big test.”

For Woods there is one question which is louder than any other. Has he come finally to the point where he can put aside all the doubts that have  accumulated in the wake of the breakdown of an image which had been fostered more carefully, more profitably, than any other in the history of sport?

He believes that he has resolved the deepest of the doubts surrounding his enduring ability to compete at the most demanding level. He says that the pragmatic approach he has shown here, while so many of his rivals have been swept on to the rocks, is simply the development of a clearly defined pattern.

“Yes,” he said, “I think patience has become an increasing important part of my play, for some time I have been right there in contention and giving myself good chances to win. At this tournament I’m sure I’m in a good spot. I’ve worked myself into a strong position.”

He has said it before, of course, and too often the old conviction of Sunday afternoon and a march to the finish line has been too easily filled with doubt. There has been the haunted look of someone reaching down into old reserves and finding nothing so much as the odd good intention.

McDowell, however, believes there are much greater resources in the Woods armoury this week. He said: “There is no doubt in my mind that he is very close to being back and it will be no surprise to me if he is picking up the Claret Jug on Sunday night.

“I’m not writing off the rest of the field because it contains a lot of quality players,” McDowell added. “But then after the last two days I have to say that he’s going to be very tough to beat.”

Woods suggests that he has grown strong at some broken places over the last few years and that he has emerged with a golf game of a new resilience. “I feel good over the putts,” he said, “and I’m happy with the way I’m seeing the game. I probably will not watch the other guys suffer now that I’ve finished my round. I’ll probably just eat.”

It can make you hungry, all that walking and striving in a wind of variable direction and on fairways and greens which seem to lay an ambush at every turn. This is especially so when you are so close to ending sport’s most unlikely famine.

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