The Open 2013: Tiger Woods: I’m as good as I’ve ever been, but the opposition has improved
Is the favourite suffering psychologically as he chases his 15th major? Not a bit of it, he tells Kevin Garside at Muirfield
If health and happiness are the principal goals in life then Tiger Woods is already a winner as he embarks on his 17th Open Championship. The body, in this instance his left elbow, is mended and the heart is full of love for this place. Whether that means he is any more likely to claim a fist major in five years he could not say. But if mood be the measure Woods is bang in the slot. He was certainly sunny side up after the green keeper finally relented, waving him on to the course shortly before the cock crowed seven.
Nine holes were enough to get the pace of greens and a grip on conditions. As ever Woods is meticulous in his pre-match calculations, reprising the rhythms of visits past to bring himself to a performance peak. He invites us to dismiss the cod psychology of the experts, led by Sir Nick Faldo, who suggests that that the challenge of claiming that 15 major is weighing too heavily on him now.
“I feel good about my game. I have felt very, very good going into major championships. I've had a pretty good year this year, won four times. Even though I have not won a major in five years, I've had chances in a bunch of them. I just need to keep putting myself there and eventually I'll get some. It is a shot here and there. It's making a key up-and-down here or getting a good bounced there. At Augusta was one of those examples. I played well, and a good shot ended up getting a bad break. It is not much. It is about getting the momentum at the right time and capitalising on opportunities.”
Woods insists he is a better player now than he was in the winning years at the turn of the millennium. It is the playground that has changed. While Woods was sleeping off the hangover of personal scandal, the gates opened to bigger boys who hit the ball a long way, and smaller boys who keep pace with enhanced tools. His absence from the podium since Torrey Pines in 2006 has seen an influx of different winners, 18 in 20 majors, many of them first-timers.
Last year he ended his two-year winless streak on the PGA Tour. This year he has won four times. Faldo would have it that the pressure of chasing down Jack Nicklaus's total of 18 majors is a factor. Woods, he says, no longer comes up with the shots when he needs to as he did in his prime. Faldo is, of course, milking the untestable premise for all its worth. Until Woods breaks through, who can say Faldo is wrong? Woods plays the debate straight, content to bide his time, knowing that the iron psyche that saw him home 14 times in his youth has not perished. The way he squeezed the pips of Sergio Garcia at the Players in May, would suggest he is right to keep believing. And as he says, it has never been easy to win a big one.
“There is a lot of pressure in major championships and you are also playing under the most difficult conditions. You are getting close to the top 100 players in the world. You combine the strength of the field with the most difficult conditions and the heightened pressure and you are going to get guys making mistakes. That's the way it is. You just don't know until the back nine on Sunday. As well as the fields being so deep the equipment has changed. It's so precise now. This allows guys to basically stack up. When you get that combines with more athletic, better players you are going to get more first-time winners.”
The roll call of past champions points to a pedigree winner this week. Woods advances the view that Muirfield asks more of players technically because the layout of the course compels golfers to confront with wind from every direction. “You have to be able to shape your shots. It's similar to the list of winners at our last major, the US Open at Merion, all wonderful ball strikers. The number of hall of famers that have won here shows that you really have to hit the ball well. There are so many different angles and different winds you have to manoeuvre the ball both ways.”
Woods is steeped in the traditions of this game, understands the value of returning to golf's mother country to contest the Open, a tournament he has won three times. “I love this championship. There are only certain places where you can truly play this type of golf, bounce the ball up, shape shots and be creative. I fell in love with it 17 years ago. When I first came over here the Scottish Open at Carnoustie and St Andrews were back-to-back weeks. That's as good as it gets.”
There was not a seat in the house for the Woods media address. Win or lose he continues to define the game. His management of the scrutiny he attracts has largely drained his appearances in front of a camera of drama, but we can tolerate the bore draws as long the sparks come off the club face when he hits the ball. On Wednesday it is the turn of his deputy, the king-in-waiting, Rory McIlroy, to talk us through his prospects at the 142 Open. Faldo had words for him, too. Concentrate on the golf, he said. Woods has some expertise in this area and is inclined to back McIlroy's talent over Faldo's counsel.
“I won a major in my first one out as a pro (Masters '97) and then I proceeded to alter my swing. It took me almost two years before it clicked in. I was getting questioned quite a bit through that stage of my career, why would you change something after winning the Masters by 12? I've gone through that process. He's going through that right now. Only he knows if it is for the betterment of his game. People speculate and analyse what he should or shouldn't do but deep down he knows what he is doing.”
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