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.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers