Scottish Open 2015: Tiger Woods can't repeat his 2000 heroics... can he?

Any mere golfing mortal’s Open hopes next week would be written off after stinking up the course the way he has of late – but Woods is no ordinary golfer and Kevin Garside finds no one is ready to consign the American to history just yet

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The Independent Online

Such is the canyon-deep imprint left by Tiger Woods on golf that few can quite bring themselves to hit the delete button on his chances of pulling off one more stunt in the big top. Despite the catalogue of snap hooks, chunked chips and missed putts, no amount of golfing ordure registers. One good round is all it takes to relieve right-minded folk of their rational faculties and fire belief that Woods has one more major in him.

And this being St Andrews, where he entered fable 15 years ago at 24 years of age, stripping the Old Course of its dignity with an eight-stroke victory, there is the sense that destiny is calling him back to enshrine in myth the moment of his resurrection as a serious golfer.

Woods was without stain when he arrived at St Andrews that halcyon week in 2000. He had just won the US Open by a record 15 strokes at Pebble Beach, the only player under par. The Open would complete his major set and establish him not only as a golfer of rare talent, but a sportsman with a reach way beyond the golfing constituency. Here was an athlete of global appeal, an ethnic beacon resetting sporting parameters in all manner of ways.

He would go on to add a second US PGA Championship that year and complete the “Tiger Slam” at the Masters in 2001, the only time in the modern era that a golfer has held all four majors simultaneously. In terms of impression management, Woods was pouring concrete into three-metre foundations, building a wall around perceptions that would last a millennium.

 

And so, even at this advanced stage of failure and disappointment, it is possible to set aside details that would damn mortals – seven years without a major championship and a ranking outside the world’s top 200 –  to believe that he might contend next week.

Matt Kuchar, who followed Woods to the US Amateur Championship in 1997, expressed a view widely held among his generation of players after his opening 66 in Scotland this week when he said: “I don’t know St Andrews very well, so it is hard for me to say, but I’m never going to pick against Tiger. I can say that. He might seem off but golfers are never that far off. If he can plug in the right ingredient he can be back in contention to win.”

Even Paul McGinley, who is somewhat removed from the PGA Tour culture that infects Kuchar and his ilk, cannot bring himself to say “never” when he considers next week’s prospects. “I don’t think he’s shown any form that would suggest he has a justifiable chance of winning it. Yes, he shot no bogeys in his last round [at The Greenbrier, West Virginia, last week.] But they were different conditions – a different course... Having said that, Tiger knows his way around St Andrews.”

Pete Cowen has made a living quietly guiding golfers to major championships and rebuilding the games of others who had the talent to win one if not the luck or the mental fortitude. Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Darren Clarke are major champions who give thanks for the input of the plain-speaking guru from Rotherham.

Lee Westwood rose from 266 to world No 1 under Cowen’s aegis and Henrik Stenson owes his newfound prosperity to the counsel of a coach who has been with him since day one. So when Cowen entertains the idea of a Woods resurrection it is perhaps not without foundation.

“I think we should embrace the lad. He’s had a rough time, but he’s still a fantastic player. You watch him on the range and you can see still see that. He’s man enough to acknowledge his difficulties and is working hard to rectify them. You can’t knock him for trying to improve. And he can still play.

“I don’t think he is going to win next week but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in the mix. You have to remember he is Tiger Woods. He changed the game. At the moment he is working through a few things with a different coach, but he has always done that. It’s what made him great. How many majors as he won?”

Woods returned from his missed cut at the US Open at Chambers Bay, where he opened with an 80, to post three rounds in the 60s at The Greenbrier last week, including a closing 67 that did not feature one dropped shot. It was his first bogey-free round since 2013 and sufficient to move the needle a fraction on the dream-ometer, and tip the bookies into defensive mode, slashing his odds to 20-1 at St Andrews from the 40-1 he had been at Chambers Bay.

“I hit the ball the best I’ve hit it in a long, long, long time, and made absolutely nothing [on the green],” Woods said flush with adrenalin after his round. “To count it up, I had six lip-outs for birdie, so this could have been one of those special rounds where I could have really gone low. I hit it great, I had it shaped both ways, right to left, left to right. I had it all on call today.”

If we are to drill down into the technicalities, Woods topped the “proximity to the hole” stats at The Greenbrier, which reflected the quality of the ball-striking with his approaches.

The “ifs” have to line up in his favour but were he to exercise a degree of control off the tee, and carry forward his Greenbrier form with the short irons, then he need only get the ball rolling  on the greens to send out a few flares.

It was with the putter that Woods terrorised the opposition at his peak, arguably the best there has been inside 12 feet, when nerve, touch and accuracy combined to deliver 14 majors in record time. His decline on the greens has been buried beneath the detritus thrown up elsewhere in his game these past 12 months. And it will be that element that carries him towards that 15th major, if indeed that  further remarkable achievement is to be his.

Phil Mickelson has spent enough time with Woods’ spikes at his throat to recognise that the danger had not passed with the missed cuts and rounds of 80 rattled up this year. Mickelson himself has not had the best of spells since his Open success two years ago at Muirfield. A second-round 68 at the Scottish Open yesterday was a reminder of what he might do at St Andrews should he resolve his own putting issues, but the rest of the clubs in his bag are exploding through the hitting zone with increasing fluency.

He was not being wholly diplomatic when he offered this view of Woods’ prospects: “It is much easier to get back to the level of play he has achieved in the past than it is to do it for the first time. The fact that he has been there and done it, knows what it feels like, and is healthy is the important thing. When he is healthy he is always a force.

“I don’t know when he will get back to the level he would like, I just know he will get there. He won five times in a year, what, two years ago, and he is not too far away from that. Again he is fit and able to work on his game.”

The Woods of old has gone, we can all agree on that. But decline is a question of degree and in the golfing community, at least, the idea persists that in the shadow of his 40th birthday, the Woods story is not told yet.

How Woods won it: The 2000 Open

First round (Score: 67)

Grouped with 1994 winner Nick Price and US amateur champion David Gossett, the 2-1 favourite began well as he sought that elusive Open, a shot off the lead.

Leaders: -6 E Els (SA); -5 S Flesch (US), T Woods (US)

Second round (66)

The American hit a faultless round of 66 without a single bogey and three birdies in his first five holes and six in total as he comfortably led.

Leaders: -11 Woods; -8 D Toms (US); 7 Flesch, S Garcia (Sp), L Roberts (US)

Third round (67)

Woods overcame a second-hole bogey and his lead being reduced to one by partner David Toms, a succession of birdies taking him clear.

Leaders: -16 Woods; -10 T Bjorn (Den), D Duval (US)

Fourth round (69)

With a six-shot lead the American coasted home, posting birdies on hole 4, 10, 12 and 14 to secure his career Grand Slam in style.

Leaders: -19 Woods; -11 Bjorn. Els

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