On a properly dreich Scottish morning, the light and the heat were supplied by the eternal flame that is Tiger Woods. Never one to undersell the Tiger cosmos, the three-times Open champion and owner of 14 major victories predicts shooting stars over St Andrews this week – all of them named after him.
You know the words to this song. Were it set to music by Roy Wood’s Wizard it would go something like this: “I wish it could be St Andrews every day.” Change the location to suit. Woods is like Henry Winkler’s Seventies creation, the Fonz, genetically incapable of seeing the faults in himself.
And so, on the thinnest of evidence, three rounds in the 60s at the Greenbrier a fortnight ago, preceded by a “baseline” shift a month before, and this we take to be a fundamental step in the development of the reconstituted swing, Woods is singing like it’s 1999. He can feel it in his fully fit bones.
That last round of 67 in West Virginia was bogey-free, his first unblemished card since August 2013. The Rubicon was crossed, he claims, in the first week of June at Memorial, the tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus. How fitting that he should make his quantum leap at the home of the man he believes he can still take down as the most successful collector of major pots in the pantheon.
“I’m still young. I’m not 40 yet. I know some of you guys think I’m buried and done, but I’m still right here in front of you. Yeah, I love playing. I love competing, and I love playing these events.” This was the answer Woods gave to the question of beating Nicklaus in the golfing arms race, which stands at 18 majors won.
The Old Course – and a pretty benign one at that so far this week – will be the ultimate arbiter. Delusion or a destiny fulfilled? We know what side of the divide Woods sits: “I’ve made a pretty big baseline shift at Memorial. That was actually one of the tougher things to do. That’s not exactly the easiest golf course in the world, either, but I did it, and consequently I ended up playing well at Greenbrier and hit the ball the best I’ve hit it in probably two years on Sunday. So that was awfully nice to be able to do coming into this week. I’ve hit the ball just as well in my practice rounds.”
In the absence of Rory McIlroy, who must be kicking himself twice over with his good foot at missing out on a track made for him, the inflating of the Woods balloon adds to the gaiety of the piece. And, be in no doubt, if Woods is as good as his word, McIlroy will be a forgotten man by the end of the week; Jordan Spieth, too, for that matter. The idea of the Tiger resurrection at the home of golf is so powerful it drills a big red line through every other golfing narrative.
“I am excited every time I come back here. I’ve always loved this golf course, from the first time I played it back in ’95. There is just something special about it. It’s nice to be out there on the course and see it and feel it again, to be able to hit all the shots. It’s brilliant, how you can play it so many different ways.” Cue the bagpipes playing The Last Post for the rest of the field.
It is our fault as much as his. So conditioned have we become by the Woods construction, the flannel he spouts passes through the inner Tiger filter and emerges as a plausible account. Woods in full chest-out, shoulders-back mode is still something to see. Few athletes in the history of sport have controlled the space like this bloke.
His entry into the media centre before his pre-Open address might have been choreographed at the Actors Studio in New York. Think Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, a cauldron of broiling physicality, crossed with David Sole leading out the Scots against the English at Murrayfield all those years ago; mesmeric of stride; straight of back; dripping purpose. I have seen that walk before, in the MGM car park in Las Vegas, where Iron Mike Tyson made a three-day march of the stroll to the Hummer after his pre-fight press conference on his comeback against the White Buffalo, Frans Botha.
Like Woods, Tyson spent the preceding week telling people he was as good as ever. New trainer Tommy Brookes had him in fine shape, trim and explosive as you like on the pads. The slow walk to the motor, entourage in step at his shoulder, was his way of setting the agenda, of marking the territory. When the bell went, he could barely lay a glove on Botha until the fifth round, whereupon he delivered an utterly devastating right hand from his past to end the contest.
Does Woods still have knockout power? Though he won, Tyson’s decline was obvious. It was about managing it against the right foe. The difficulty for Woods is he has no say in that. He must face the best, come what may, McIlroy excluded on this occasion. Will Spieth step aside on Sunday? Will Dustin Johnson find another way to lose out of respect for the old master? Will any other with a sniff of victory fall over at Woods’ command? Not a chance.
It doesn’t hurt to dream, of course. Woods is genuine in his affection for this precinct, the light in his eyes authentic when he takes you through its charms. And he is, for the moment at least, injury free, another reason for him to get excited. “I feel like my body is finally healed from the surgery last year. It would have been one thing if I would have gone through the procedure and then had the same swing, but I’ve changed the swing, too, and so that was kind of a double dipper where I had to fight both at the same time.”Reuse content