Tiger too wily to fall into new traps on Old Course

Yet there were dark, forbidding shapes on the landscape - the billowing, black inflatable advertising boards erected by the main sponsors of Tiger Woods. The first was imprinted with the message "112 bunkers", the second "94 of them made more difficult" and, finally, a single word - "whatever".

Here was a reminder that when Woods was last in these acres for the Millennium Open, strange numbers occurred. The 29-year-old won the tournament by eight shots and with a 19-under-par total, breaking Nick Faldo's Open record. During the course of this stroll he did not once visit a bunker.

Woods allowed his sand wedge some employment yesterday during a practice round with his faithful friend Mark O'Meara. He started from the second hole at the cereal-drenching time of 7am in the sort of clement conditions which characterised the whole of the week the last time he was here for a major.

The gallery was even bigger than five years ago, when the legend was already locked into place. Not every presence in the throng got to see all of Tiger. Plenty of security personnel peering into the crowd evidenced that this was much more, especially in these times, than buddies goofing around in the sunshine.

We are now in the American's Tigger phase in the run-up to a tournament, a blithesome period to exercise the toothy smile and gambol through the obligatory press conferences. Soon enough, though, he will become the predator once again, and the rest of the field will collectively fear him, like the fold collecting the first whiff of Reynard.

The course shepherds have been at work, trying to protect the old links. Five new tees have added 164 yards to the equation, but it seems strange logic to combat the Woods power game by making the course longer. Indeed, it might play into the American's hands.

Tiger-proofing a golf course has proved to be the work of cowboys in the past. "I guess it all started out at Augusta," Woods said. "They weren't really too happy when I was hitting driver, wedge, into 15 twice. They weren't really thrilled by that. They made a few changes in that course and I guess that's when the terminology first started.

"If a guy hits the ball further he's going to have an advantage. On shorter holes he can maybe take a run at driving a green or two. Or other guys are hitting driver, you're hitting a one-iron or three-wood in a fairway, which is a little easier to hit."

But what of his bunker-free passage here last time, the equivalent of going blindfold through a cow field and coming out with clean shoes at the other end? It was, as Woods conceded, part instinct and also great good fortune. "Two factors in 2000," he said. "I hit it well and I got lucky a few times. I should have been in probably three or five bunkers. Just off the tee shots alone, it happened to hop over a bunker and catch a side and kick left or right of it. That happens.

"The golf course, it's kind of funny. You play along and you think, 'What is a bunker here for?' And, all of a sudden, the wind switches and you go, 'Oh, there it is." But what if the Old Course's biggest guard dog does not come out growling? What if the wind does not blow? Does the Old Course have any protection then? "It really doesn't," Woods said. "The greens are at a speed where you can be aggressive. It will be interesting to see how tough they'll put the pins, over the knobs or on the corners. That would be the only defence if the wind doesn't blow. Otherwise, the guys will shoot some numbers."

It would be unfortunate to see the Old Course embarrassed or abused, a creaking victim of knock and run. Yet it would be no surprise, on No 6 Heathery (out) for example, to see Woods hit driver and then putt from 70 yards.

The currently manacled links need nature to intervene and break the chains. Then the lottery of tee times will come into play and greater emphasis will be placed on course management. It is a prospect which disturbs Woods not one jot.

This challenge has transfixed him since he first took on the Scottish terrain and climate here in 1995, as an amateur. "Back then I could hit the ball long, there's no doubt about it, but I had no idea where it was going," he said. "I knew for a fact that I could hit every shot forward, in what direction was kind of marginal. I didn't really understand how to play links golf, how to bump the ball on the ground, because I never had. To run the ball and use any creativeness to get the ball around, I just got such a rush out of it. I used a lot of that experience that I had in 1995 here in 2000.

"This is how golf is meant to be played. You have to think. This week is different than most weeks because you have to try to get an understanding of how far the ball is going to run, an element you generally don't have to worry about. It's always more fun when you have to think your way around the golf course instead of get up there, hit down there and who cares where it goes.

"Golf is meant to be cerebral. You have to use your head to get around. This golf course allows you to be creative. It allows you to hit shots that you don't normally get a chance to hit, especially in the States."

Worst of all for his rivals, Tiger Woods believes he has emerged from the workshop with the finest grooved swing of his career. He had not won a major since the US Open of 2002 until he collected the Masters this spring and was then second in the US Open.

The American had been tinkering for 12 months, the second major swing overhaul of his career. Now vorsprung durch technik has been completed. "The process has been arduous, a lot of work, a lot of countless hours on the range, in front of a mirror, trying to get it right, trying to teach my body to do something that it hadn't done before," he said. "It took me about a year to put the pieces together.

"I don't know why I've had the patience to go through it. I have gotten frustrated at times. Trust me, I don't want to do it again. It takes a lot out of you."

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