There was at least one believer in the house when Tiger Woods was telling his audience he can win here this week. Well, one plus the cadre of Liverpool fire fighters with whom Woods is said to be training before making his way to the course. No better way to project the idea of muscular, can-do vigour than hanging out with local heroes for an hour every day.
Woods is not one to let reality bite into his own world view. The fact that six years have passed since he won a major, eight since he claimed the last of his three Open crowns here at Hoylake, is irrelevant. I’m Tiger Woods. I’m not like other people. I’m not like you.
Woods smashes this message home with every fibre of his being, with such conviction, in fact, that the cynics among us begin to doubt the rules of evidence. Fourteen majors gained over an unprecedented 11-year period are awfully persuasive. And as he argued, he has walked out of theatre before and won without playing a scoring round in preparation. In 2008 after arthroscopic knee surgery to clean up a cartilage in April, he was not seen again until the US Open at Torrey Pines in June, which he won on one leg before surrendering once more to the surgeon.
It was perfectly clear in a quintessential display of braggadocio that Woods is euphoric about his health, thrilled to have stood up to the rigours of tournament golf, albeit for only two days at Congressional three weeks ago. It is equally obvious that he has lost none of his capacity for compartmentalising the bad stuff. Just because he was spraying it left and right in Maryland does not mean the fix is not within his grasp next time out.
Any sane soul might infer from his present state that renewed health has corrupted judgement, leaving him prone in his excitement and enthusiasm to overstating the case for victory. And then you recall how he has reset the parameters so many times in the past that we have had to adjust our ideas of what is possible accordingly, including last year when he won five times, posting victories at two WGC events and the Players. Few saw a year like that coming when he was missing the cut at The US PGA in 2011, his personal life in a state of post-divorce flux, his physical health dubious and his game mired in rebuild chaos.
He told us he would be back and delivered, albeit without the major. At 38, he is asking us to believe once more, joking even that the 18 major landmark set by Jack Nicklaus will be met long before he needs a buggy to get around the park.
Perhaps the return to Hoylake is significant. It certainly has a special resonance for Woods, whose victory here in 2006 came just two months after the loss of his father. He is a father now, of course, and rebuilding his personal life with a new partner, skier Lindsey Vonn. The game face has softened a little and there is, perhaps, a sense of contentment in this phase of his career that is new to him.
“Well, it’s eight years on. My life has certainly changed a lot since then. That was a very emotional week. As you all know, I pressed pretty hard at Augusta that year, trying to win it, because it was the last time my dad was ever going to see me play a major championship. And then I didn’t play well at the US Open, missed the cut there miserably. And then came here and just felt at peace. I really, really played well. On Sunday I really felt calm out there. It was surreal at the time.
“I had it going pretty good. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was every day but certainly on Sunday I really felt that my dad was with me on that one round. I said it back then in ’06 that it was like having my 15th club. I felt that type of at peace when I was out there.”
The fields are deeper now. In the void left by Woods during his period of personal strife a younger generation of fearless golfers, with the same work ethic as him who hit it just as far, have emerged to reshape the landscape. Rory McIlroy has won two majors, Martin Kaymer, too, and a host of first-time winners have muddied the picture making picking a winner at major tournaments a thankless task. A compelling case can be made for McIlroy, Kaymer, Justin Rose, Adam Scott and even Phil Mickelson before we get to Woods in the betting. Even he accepts the major demand is greater now than at any time in his career.
“There are more guys with a chance to win. What did we have, 16, 17 straight first-time winners at major championships throughout that stretch? It’s just getting deeper. It’s getting harder to win. The margin is so much smaller. It’s only going to continue to be the case. Guys are going to get longer, they’re going to get faster.
“Guys who are coming out here are bigger, stronger, more athletic. When I first came out in ’97, I think I averaged somewhere under 300 yards, 296, or something like that. I walked around with Gary Woodland on Sunday and he said: ‘Yeah, I finally found a driver and a ball I can hit 320 again in the air.’ Yeah, in the air. So the game has changed a lot since then.”
The more obvious winners with Woods in the field are the broadcast companies drooling over the increased viewing figures. ESPN has dedicated a whole channel to the Woods experience this week. That means every intervention he makes on the course will be the subject of scrutiny. Playing partners Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson must settle for walk-on parts. The rest of the field can whistle.