American broadcaster ESPN has rolled out a dedicated Tiger Woods feed for his return to major golf at Hoylake next week. Given that the majority of telecasts in the United States are Woods-centric you might wonder why? It is a measure of the reliance on Woods to drive viewing figures that ESPN have gone the whole hog with a Tiger channel that tracks his every move on course, every drive, putt and spit. Woods is always the attraction. Throw in a Tiger comeback and the move to absolute worship is irresistible.
Fear not, there is a plan B. The network will broaden its gaze to include the rest of the field should Woods do as he did on his return from injury at the elegantly titled Quicken Loans National a fortnight ago, fail to make the weekend. Woods is returning from back surgery, an elected intervention after rest and rehab failed to cure a problem that first surfaced in the Fed-Ex Play-offs last September. Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic in February with five holes to play, laboured through the WGC Cadillac Championship a week later and stood down from Arnold Palmer’s invitational at Bay Hill. You don’t give Arnie the flick lightly.
He had surgery on the first of April, tempting many down the fool’s fallacy route. This was no joke for Woods or the game. The Masters and the US Open missed the sport’s talisman. The lumbar region is an ambush waiting to happen. His decision to return in Maryland came out of the blue. His performance was so rusty there were doubts about his recovery in time for The Open.
Sir Nick Faldo, who was blown off Royal Aberdeen and out of the Scottish Open on Friday, is not a believer. “Tiger is the most compelling golfer in the world and everybody wants to study him whether he’s good, bad, ugly or in between. But it is just amazing he’s only played two rounds of golf since March. That’s just incredible.
“Tiger’s short on everything, and it seems strange as he had a chance to play in the Greenbrier Classic, which would have been good for him, or he could have come here to the Scottish Open. So given he was looking for competitive practice why Tiger just didn’t tee it up last week or this I can’t say. We’ll see if he’s tournament sharp next week. He has his cards stacked against him.”
The majority around the game are glad to see Woods back but doubt he will be a factor. Of course, if there is one golfer who might invert convention and challenge it is Woods, a man so far removed from the norms that he renders sensible judgment almost impossible.
And there is at Royal Liverpool an indelible association that makes his return here unique. His victory in 2006 came less than two months after the death of his father, Earl. Those of a religious persuasion saw the work of a higher authority at play in the hat-trick of birdies on the back nine that took him to a two-shot victory over Chris DiMarco. The scenes on the 18th as caddie Steve Williams wrapped an arm around the shoulder of a weeping Woods captured the significance of his 11th major win.
There is no doubt the appearance of Woods at his first major of the year adds to an event not short of history and tradition. He is still hunting that 15th major in pursuit of the 18 held by Jack Nicklaus. It makes the ears pop to think six years have elapsed since the 14th was claimed on one leg at the US Open at Torrey Pines.
At 38 Woods is well into golfing middle age but there is comfort in comparisons with Nicklaus, who won his 18th major at 46. A purple patch when full fitness is restored cannot be discounted, witness last year’s plunder when Woods won five times on the PGA Tour, including elite field events at the WGC Cadillac and The Players.
If Royal Liverpool is too early for one American icon, another demonstrated in the wind at Royal Aberdeen how ready he is to attempt retention of the trophy he won for the first time at Muirfield. Phil Mickelson began the third round of the Scottish Open today five off the lead, the magic number in his case since that was the deficit he overcame on the final day to lift the Claret Jug. His return to Britain has conjured all sorts of recollections of that day, which Mickelson and his caddie Bones Mackay have been processing.
“It was an experience that we’ve talked about every day since we’ve been here. Every time we watch the replay it brings out the same emotions that we experienced throughout that round. It’s something that we’ll cherish forever, because this tournament brings out the greatest emo- tions from a player,” Mickelson said.
“As I get older  I really enjoy and appreciate what each major championship provides as far as an opportunity and a life experience. I cherish what playing Hoylake means next week. You think when you’re in your 20s that you’ll have endless opportunities. I think that brought out some emotion last year.”
The usual suspects feature in the Open betting: Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Mickelson, Justin Rose et al top the list with justification. But as we have seen in Scotland one good round does not necessarily presage another. If the wind blows as it did off the North Sea today, your money is best kept in your pocket.
Five pointers to the Hoylake action
1. Digital revolution
For the first time, technological aids are permitted at the Open. An R&A-approved device attaches to the club and gives players an uploadable digital record of every shot: club, distance, direction, shape.
2. All you need is love
Only three courses on the rota have hosted the Open more. This is the 12th time at Hoylake, where Bobby Jones won the Open and second leg of his grand slam in 1930. It was also where John Lennon played pre-Beatles cupid with Hoylake resident Cynthia Powell, who would later become his wife.
3. Local boy comes good
Golf started for ordinary folk and comes full circle with John Singleton (above), who qualified at Hillside, club to the stars of Liverpool and Everton. Singleton, 30, a resin mixer at Advanced Electrical Varnishes in Birkenhead, will be cheered on by staff who have been given Thursday off.
4. The roughs get rougher
Hoylake is 54 yards longer than in 2006 with new swales at five. The rough has been augmented by broken ground. Though the number of bunkers have been cut to 82 those around the first green make tougher a hole that R&A chief executive Peter Dawson called the hardest on the rota.
5. Foreign aid
Three have Open hat-tricks here: Jones, Peter Thompson and Tiger Woods. It hosted the first foreign Open winner and the only Frenchman to win the Claret Jug, Arnaud Massey in 1907. Following Massey, seven different nationalities have won here, an Open record.