Will Tiger roar again?
Since his career-saving knee surgery last year, the world No 1 has yet to recapture the power and glory that swept him to 14 majors. But the lunar landscape of Turnberry could be the ideal backdrop for a spectacular return to form, writes James Lawton
Saturday 11 July 2009
Everybody talks of Turnberry, '77, in hushed tones and the sense that nothing could ever interfere with the legacy of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus and their Duel in the Sun. This would be all very well if Tiger Woods hadn't got some serious work to do at the Open of 2009, and of course, when the Tiger has serious work to do, history, even that of the order of Turnberry's, has a tendency to shrink to roughly the size of the local collection on flag day.
Tiger isn't impervious to history, of course. A bit like his compatriot Mike Tyson, he can talk about great players of his game, and the meaning of their achievements, without being contained by a few narrow years.
Yet no one lives more firmly in the moment and it is one that makes him extremely motivated if he believes he is not more or less utterly in charge of it. Turnberry will provide a series of moments which he must dominate to win back some of his old aura.
Victory would bring him his 15th major title, but more vitally it would persuade that indeed he is back on top of everything he surveys. He needs this because his antennae are acute enough to know that some are wondering if the best of his momentum is spent.
Turnberry thus offers more than the Old Claret Jug which he has already collected three times.
Potentially, it is the place where he finds the deepest strengths of his game once again. It is a fine course and these next few days will host the greatest players of the modern game, but then for many it is frozen in time – a sublime few sun-drenched days 32 years ago.
Or so we think. There is, however, one other possibility.
It is something that might just rise up on fairways unprotected against the scouring wind and on the glassy greens. It is called the force of genius and it might be represented by, who else, but Tiger Woods.
Woods needs to win his first major since his extraordinary farewell to the game last year before undergoing career-saving knee surgery. Remember that compelling statement of preserved ambition and fighting instinct that went into his 14th major triumph in the US Open, when, despite wretched pain in his left knee which came with every stride along the cliff-side Torrey Pines course in southern California, he stayed on so relentlessly to beat Rocco Mediate on the first extra hole of the play-off.
Woods has failed to reimpose that authority in the majors he has played since his surgery. In Augusta he blitzed the course on the last day but he had let the Masters field stretch out too far ahead of him on the first three days. In the waterlogged US Open he showed that his long and iron game was as deep and as brilliant as ever, but his putting let him down on the soggy greens. The question nags. Did Tiger's long lay-off take away an edge that might just never return? Those who know him best laugh at such a suggestion. Indeed, they believe that if this latest Turnberry cannot hope to match the mano-a-mano glory of Watson and Nicklaus, it does have the potential for something that might, in the long run of golf history, prove even more significant.
It might just be the scene of the Tiger's first great victory of the second half of his golfing life. At 33 he does need a little momentum now. There are questions not just about his left knee but his competitive psyche. Has fatherhood widened his horizons at the possible cost of that old narrow but deeply searching focus for the game he has dominated so profoundly since winning his first major at Augusta in 1997?
At Turnberry Woods has the perfect opportunity to make dust of such suspicions and if he does so it will have been the second occasion on which he has appeared to be utterly committed to a statement about power to dissect and make light of a formidable golf course. He did it most dramatically at Hoylake three years ago when, but for one little fling at the 16th tee of the first round, he put away what has always been seen as his most formidable weapon, the driver.
It was one of golf's ultimate tour-de-forces in the crucial art of managing a course, when a golfer says that he can read every nuance of its challenge and bring it, quite remorselessly, to heel. Woods ravaged the field at Royal Liverpool. He finished 18 under, just one off his record mark at St Andrews six years earlier. The triumph, Woods said, was his tribute to his father Earl, who had died in May, a convulsion for Tiger that resulted in his missing the cut when he returned, emotionally frail, to the US Open. In Hoylake he said that he wanted to show that his father had taught him to be a golfer who can win in any conditions and any circumstances.
The parallels between Hoylake and Turnberry are striking; the same lunar landscape, the same turbulent challenge of links golf.
For Tiger the prospect seems certain to bring out the best of his powers of concentration, his love of proving that he is capable of doing things that haven't been done before.
It is a way of thinking about the game which has long been pronounced as unprecedented – or perhaps almost unprecedented.
Charles Yates, who in 1997 was the lowest-scoring amateur since the legendary Bobby Jones at the first Augusta tournament in 1934, made a dramatic assessment of Woods' ability to immerse himself in the game.
"Tiger is the new Ben Hogan," declared the veteran. "Everyone else is comparing him to Nicklaus, but I say Hogan. You should have seen him at the 15th where that little kid came around from behind him and reached up to pat his shoulder. The recoil of Tiger's club damn near took his head off. The Tiger never saw him. The Tiger never felt his presence. That's Hogan – that's somebody who can shut everything out and achieve just what he wants."
Can the Tiger rekindle such passionate attention to every stroke over the next few days at Turnberry? Can he begin to impinge on the 32-year-old glory of Watson and Nicklaus? That first achievement was recognised by a doyen of golf writers, Herbert Warren, in a rare statement of unalloyed praise. He said: "In the years ahead all that will probably be remembered is the fantastic duel between Nicklaus and Watson, who were paired on the third and fourth days and threw some altogether stupendous golf at each other – neither of them ever taking a backward step right down to the 72nd green."
Such an epic will not be easily replaced, especially in a golf age when one man has separated himself from the rest with such authority. Nicklaus and Watson fed upon the challenge they represented to each other. So from where does Tiger draw his greatest inspiration, now that his father has gone and his assumption of Nicklaus's all-time winning record in majors is seen as such a formality? It is of course where all the great sportsmen go when they are need of a significant triumph. They go back to the source of everything, which is their own will.
No, there is no reason to lock up the kids over the next few days, but, yes, maybe they should be discouraged from patting the Tiger on his shoulder.
Major contenders: Five to challenge Tiger and Harrington
Sergio Garcia (Sp)
Age 29 Best Open finish 2nd, 2007
Remains the most obvious Open champion in waiting. Surely it is a mere case of when for El Niño. Has always had the imagination to prevail on the links; all he needs to do is have a good putting week and exorcise the demons of his play-off defeat at Carnoustie two years ago. Returned to form with a tie for 10th place at last month's US Open and has made no secret of his fondness for Turnberry.
Ian Poulter (GB)
Age 33 Best Open finish 2nd, 2008
Made such a splash when sporting those Union Flag trousers in 2004 but attracted the headlines for all the right reasons last year when a fast-finishing and ever-so gutsy runner-up to Harrington. Built on that showing when emerging as top points-scorer, of either team, at last year's Ryder Cup and when coming second at the "fifth major", the Players Championship in May. Could be the best home shout.
Geoff Ogilvy (Aus)
Age 32 Best Open finish T5th, 2005
When the intelligent Australian finished equal fifth at St Andrews four years ago a Claret Jug looked a given. But two missed cuts in the last two years have raised a question mark as to Ogilvy's suitability to links golf. If the wind rages then his high ball flight must be a concern, although Ogilvy is a shot-maker able to fly it on any trajectory he fancies. Certainly has a good enough putting game and the right heritage – Scottish.
Rory McIlroy (N Irl)
Age 20 Best Open finish T42, 2007
Tiger Woods was 21 when he won his first major – which, by any normal analysis would render a 20-year-old's hopes next week as forlorn. Except just like Tiger, Rory is not normal. Since becoming the amateur darling of the Open galleries two years ago, the Ulster boy has done everything, and more, expected for him as a professional. A big hitter with the touch of Seve, he has the perfect game for Turnberry.
Kenny Perry (US)
Age 48 Best Open finish T8, 2003
Despite being perhaps the hottest player on the planet this time last year, Perry decided not to bother making the trip across to Birkdale. This time around he has deigned to travel and may just discover what he – and, yes, we – missed out on in '08. The veteran is again enjoying a brilliant season and should really have won the Masters in April. Played well at Sandwich six years ago.
And one outsider not to be forgotten...
Greg Norman (Aus)
Age 54 Best Open finish 1st, 1986, 1993
One bookie was last week offering 300-1 about Norman – which makes you think that (a) they weren't watching last year when he finished third or (b) they believe the jump from 53 to 54 to be the most degenerative in an athlete's life. Norman fared so well at Birkdale mainly because he understands links golf. If it blows again he could easily stage a reprise of '08. Or even of '86, when he won by five strokes – at Turnberry.
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