James Lawton: Twenty years on, king Tiger Woods is dreaming again of a Royal ascent

 

Royal Lytham

It is four years and counting, hard, now since the Tiger, the improbable favourite of this Open he last won down the coast in Hoylake in 2006, whipped a great golf course into submission. But you wouldn't have thought so here yesterday.

You wouldn't have thought this was a man still running beneath his own long shadow.

Maybe it is his sense that a truce has been called on the Doomsday speculation about the scale of personal disintegration signalled by his collision with a fire hydrant two and a half years ago.

Perhaps it is the iron chains of memory linking him to this course which he admires deeply for its challenge to a golfer's creativity and which persuaded him, as a 20-year-old college boy star, he was ready to join the pros.

Woods made that decision after winning the low amateur's silver medal here at the 1996 Open – less than 12 months before he swept up his first of 14 major titles by shattering the field at Augusta National. Yesterday he talked as freely and happily about those few formative days as he did an unforgettable meeting with Nelson Mandela at his home in Soweto two years later.

Victory here – after two US PGA tour wins, one of which at Jack Nicklaus's Muirfield course in Dublin, Ohio, earned the highest praise from the Golden Bear – would return him to the world's No1 ranking. Somebody wanted to know if he was surprised at the possibility of such a swift resurrection. His eyes narrowed only slightly when he said: "No."

It was maybe the least unpredictable response on a day when the Tiger seemed not only comfortable in his own skin but thoroughly stimulated by his surroundings.

What he liked about this course, he said, was that it generally looked most kindly on the great ball-strikers. So where better to see the major rebirth of a player who spent the first few years of his professional life redefining the game?

Six years ago he produced a master class in course management at Hoylake, but it was a game plan which he believes would be unproductive here. "I have to hit a few more drivers and three-woods here than I did then. At Hoylake on the downwind holes I was hitting 3 and 4-irons almost 300 yards at times, just because it was so fast and it was blowing.

"The bunkers are staggered differently here. There are some carries to where you have to force it and then stop it or try to skirt past them. You can't just either lay it up or bomb over the top. There has to be some shape to shots. That's one of the reasons why you see on the list of champions here that they have been wonderful ball-strikers."

There is an old relish in the voice of the Tiger – not least when he talks of the impact of the most sublime of those strikers of a golf ball, Seve Ballesteros, when he won his last major here in 1989, finishing with a shot that nestled against the last pin so exquisitely that the brilliant challenge of Nick Price was made to seem, suddenly, like an exercise in futility, a superior brand of it no doubt, but still futile.

"Yeah," said the Tiger, "that was a fantastic round. He had so much energy. He was just into his round and shaping his shots. But he was holing everything. He was making putt after putt, anything inside 15 or 20 feet was good.

"Those are special days and he had that one at the right time – and against a guy who was playing pretty well too."

The Tiger's special day here is no less vivid. He was wondering about another year at Stanford University, another pause before the testing ground of the pro game. But Royal Lytham confirmed to him that it was time to move.

"I got hot in the second round, made seven birdies and tied the low amateur score. It pushed me towards turning pro versus going back to college. I was still kind of iffy about whether I should turn pro or not but I got the confidence here to believe that I could do it at a high level. I could shoot low scores while playing against the top players on a very difficult track."

The more the Tiger talks the less he seems besieged. The mention of Mandela sends him back to another point of inspiration. "It was incredible meeting him for the first time in '98. I got invited to his home. I tell the story that it was incredible. They said to my dad and me, okay just go into the living room. And we go in there and I say, 'Hey, Pops, do you feel that? It feels different in here.' We're just standing there looking at some things on the wall – and over in the corner was President Mandela.

"He was just meditating in the corner and it was just a different feeling in the room. He has such a presence and aura about him, unlike anyone I have ever met."

However it is when he talks of golf that you have the best sense of a man who may have come to terms with the pressure that so many believed would wear him down – and make his pursuit of Nicklaus's mark of 18 majors increasingly forlorn.

No, he insists, he is neither anxious nor impatient when he wonders about his chances of winning another major.

"I just try to put myself there, get into position, and remember I had to go through the whole process of just getting healthy again. Being banged up and missing major championships wasn't a whole lot of fun. I missed four majors just because I was injured. Now I figure if I'm healthy, then I can prepare properly – and I can get myself there."

It is a place which, just a few months ago, he was approaching with much less serenity. Now it seems to represent not so much a challenging frontier as somewhere much nearer to home, and certainly that terrain where he always felt most secure before his life began to break apart.

"This is my third time here," he said, "I liked it as an amateur and in the other two years that I played it wasn't like this. This is different. The rough is lush. The fairways are softer. The ball is not chasing as much. It's a slower golf course but nonetheless it has some mounding on it. The bunkers are penal.

"It will be interesting to see which way the wind comes out because it changes the whole golf course. Two out of three days this week I've played in two different winds. One day on seven I hit driver and 7-iron and the next day I hit driver, 3-wood and wedge. So, sure, it's going to be very interesting to see how it turns out."

He especially likes the fact that this is a course which presents so many different angles. "It tests your ability to hit the ball proper distances," he says. He makes it sound less an ordeal, more the comfort of returning to something he knew so well.

The crisis may not be over, but like the great course, it has changed. It is something a once sublime golfer might just be able to manage.

 



Tiger on the prowl: His form this year

1-4 March: The Honda Classic

Position Second.

Woods loses out to Rory McIlroy, despite an impressive eight-under 62 in the final round.

22-25 March: Arnold Palmer

Position Winner

The American storms to victory in Orlando, securing his first success on the PGA Tour since September 2009.

5-8 April: The Masters

Position 40th Despite being one of the favourites at Augusta, Woods endures a frustrating tournament.

10-13 May: Players Championship

Position 40th

Woods' struggles continue as he finishes 12 shots off the lead.

31 May-3 June: The Memorial Tournament

Position Winner

Woods returns to form, playing some sparkling golf to secure his 73rd PGA victory.

14-17 June: US Open

Position 21 Confidence does not translate into success for misfiring Woods, with two poor final rounds.

28 June-1 July: AT&T National

Position Winner

A third victory of 2012 sees Woods become this year's most successful PGA tour golfer.

5-8 July: The Greenbrier Classic

Position Missed cut

Woods misses cut for only the ninth time in his PGA Tour career.

News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'