James Lawton: What is Woods going through? Even his rivals are in the dark

I don't think he's going to get as frustrated or angry as he was over the last few years
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The Independent Online

The Tiger moves tentatively on towards what he hopes is his moment of redemption here in a few days' time. He courts hugs and re-assurance like a wounded boy who knows that he has pushed his limits too far.

It is as though he is looking around for reasons to believe in himself again. In this strange chasm he has created for himself, he may also draw just a degree or two of encouragement from his fellow pro and multiple majors winner Padraig Harrington.

But it is not easy medicine offered by the intense but occasionally wry Irishman who fights most of his demons on the course rather than in the fast lane of celebrity culture.

Harrington's prognosis for Woods is certainly not quite what a seeker of an instant cure would ever have in mind.

The Tiger can make it again, Harrington says, but the chances are he will first get a little insight into a competitive hell, and some of that might have arrived by the time he trails back out of the gloaming of tomorrow night when he comes in late with first-round playing partners Matt Kuchar and K J Choi.

The Irishman looks at Tiger as a man and golfer and he suspects that somewhere in between there could be, for a little while at least, a terrible shortfall in the task of making that separation for the five hours required to put him into a striking position for a win that would be the most staggering achievement of his career.

Harrington suspects, though, that the Tiger will turn for some of the old reasons for supreme confidence and maybe they will have gone missing, not to return before some treacherous dawns and quite a bit of hurting.

Harrington, a nerveless winner of two Opens and one US PGA, says: "We will really only know how he is going by the weekend because the truth is that however he is looking, or whatever he is saying, we don't know how he is feeling deep down. Every one reacts differently inside. We can say somebody's doing all right, but we don't really know.

"I'm looking at Tiger and I'm remembering you can never be sure about what's going on in somebody's head. But I do know a few things. In Tiger's case he had changed a lot in the last couple of years and was definitely tougher on himself on the golf course. He was getting a lot angrier.

"That wasn't who he was, you know, six or seven years ago. So I think he's trying to go back to where he was, rather than the other way around. He's trying to get back to who he was. I think if you had all that going on in your life outside golf, you're going to bring a lot of baggage onto the course.

"Maybe not in the short-term, but in the long-run you have to think he will have much more peace of mind when he's playing. I don't think he's going to get as frustrated or angry out there as he was over the last few years, and in the long-run that could be the best thing that could happen to him – as a golfer."

Harrington just cannot imagine doing as the Tiger does here, coming back to a major tournament having spent five months off the course. "I would be a hopeless wreck but there are some things you have to remember about Tiger.

"You have to remember that, of all the competitive players, he has a good ability to bring his game from the practice round to golf course – and I have a very poor ability to do that.

"That's why it couldn't work for me and it could work for him. It's not ideal for anyone, even Tiger, and I'm sure he doesn't think it's ideal. He would have liked to have played a little bit, but, yes, he's still capable of winning this thing. If he's managed his practice properly, yes, he could still do it."

It is a staggering possibility and would leapfrog by some comfortable margin his most notable achievements so far in a career that has left him just four short of Jack Nicklaus's all-time record of 18 major wins. It would be more improbable than his astonishing first of four triumphs here as a 21-year-old, easing to the green jacket by a margin of 12 shots. It would be at least as remarkable as his US Open win on one leg, when every time he drove the ball, pain shot through the knee that demanded surgery.

Can it really happen? "Of course it can happen," says the American Stewart Cink. "We knew long ago that with him anything is possible on a golf course." But then Cink agrees with Harrington that it is impossible to know at this point quite what is going on in Woods' head. Is it filled with outrageous optimism laced with the old arrogance? Or is there the panic of that wounded boy?

Cink says: "I'm sure it was a real unusual day for the Tiger when he practised in front of that big crowd for the first time this week, because he's been gone for so long. But you know you don't really get an idea of what's going on behind the scenes, how a golfer is thinking. When you go out there you just have to grind away at your business. Then you come in and your thoughts can be all over the place. In my case, I will always try to let my golf reflect my life. If I think I have things in order in my life, it doesn't mean I'm going to hit my 7-iron better today but over the long-haul, I will maybe have a little bit more success than I would have otherwise."

Such, anyway, is the ambition of Tiger Woods as he prepares for the greatest trial of his adult life. The bookmakers say it is a 3-1 possibility that he will win his 15th major over the next few days.

"Those guys know a lot more than I do," sniffed Harrington. He might have been saying that before such a miracle, there must be that competitive hell.