James Lawton: Twenty years on, king Tiger Woods is dreaming again of a Royal ascent
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
Woods loses out to Rory McIlroy, despite an impressive eight-under 62 in the final round.
22-25 March: Arnold Palmer
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
Woods' struggles continue as he finishes 12 shots off the lead.
31 May-3 June: The Memorial Tournament
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
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.
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