Tiger throws caution to the winds to hone his links game
Tiger Woods flew into Fife yesterday and was so determined to get in some links practice on the Old Course he played through conditions that were "unplayable". The Royal and Ancient admitted afterwards that if this had been a tournament day, the 50mph gusts would have seen the Open Championship suspended.
He was not the only professional who braved the winds which Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive, labelled "extraordinary". But Woods – making his first appearance in Britain since the extra-marital scandal broke last November – was one of the few who went out in the worst of it and completed all 18. This was despite having taken an overnight flight from Orlando where he had spent a few days with his children after jetting back from Ireland last Tuesday.
Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh were just two of the players who curtailed their rounds. "It does not get any windier than that," commented the Swede Henrik Stenson, who managed 16 holes. "It was brutal. The balls were even wobbling on the fairways."
Inevitably, they oscillated all the more obviously on the greens – and on the 11th they blew off their spot. In competition that would have heralded the hooter. "It would not have been playable today," confirmed Dawson. "Winds were gusting over 50mph out there. That is pretty extraordinary and thank goodness nothing like this is forecast for later in the week." As it was they nearly had to call off the first official day of practice because of "concerns about spectator safety". Two portaloos were blown over and advertising hoardings went the same way. Safety officials checked the grandstands. "We got through it," said a clearly relieved Dawson.
Dawson spoke to Woods mid-round. "He was on the seventh and I was looking at the 11th," he said. "He didn't seem too perturbed by the wind." No, it was the famous pot bunkers which troubled Woods. He visited three, which is more than in his victories of 2000 and 2005 put together. From the controversial new tee on the Road Hole 17th, Woods found the high rough on the left before taking another drive and only just missing the hotel.
Twenty minutes later he declined to talk to British reporters waiting for him outside the R&A clubhouse behind the 18th green. Instead, after putting out, the world No 1 turned on his heels and together with his caddie, Steve Williams, hurried back down the 18th fairway towards the Old Course Hotel, with a few policemen and bodyguards scampering to catch up. His silence was hardly a surprise, particularly as a member of his entourage was recently overheard saying: "Tiger is painfully aware he's going over to the tabloid centre of the world."
His interaction with the crowd was only slightly more animated. There were no cheers when he teed off on the first; indeed it took until the fourth hole until any member of the large galleries – paying £15 a pop – shouted out, "Tiger". Scottish golf fans are not known for being vociferous, but this was muted even by their tight-lipped standards. A gentleman on the 12th who screamed the name of Woods' first golf club "Los Alamitos" raised a reaction (a smirk) as did a little girl on the last who hollered his name (a wave).
Otherwise it was head down and hush, with his security detail warning fans around the tees "not to take any pictures while he is swinging". This certainly wasn't the new, smiling Tiger who engaged the crowd so uncharacteristically on his reintroduction to the sporting world on the Monday of the Masters three months ago.
Later Dawson talked about the chances of Woods receiving an ecstatic welcome here this week. "I don't know, he has now been playing events for quite some months," he said. "You would think that initial flush of reaction has past and Open Championship crowds have always been respectful of players. I would expect that to continue. But it is his first event in the UK since 'the difficulties', shall we say."
Everyone here is being asked for their Woods predictions and like the majority, Dawson foresees a positive week ahead for the world No 1.
"It is very difficult to predict but yes I would expect him to contend," he said. "He has proven he can play here. He is conscious that nobody has ever won The Open at St Andrews three times before. Let's hope this is the week he gets his game right."
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