Woods looks vulnerable – on and off the greens
Tiger Woods will arrive at his favourite place on earth today with his favourite place in the rankings secure. If golf's world No 1 truly has to learn to celebrate what he still has, after the scandal which tore his world apart, then this next week on the Fife coast is the time to be doing so.
He will surely have a little chuckle when he sees Phil Mickelson already in situ on the practice range. This was the fifth time since winning the Masters that Mickelson had the chance to displace Woods at the top of the order and the fifth time he failed. In fact, he failed rather dismally, missing the cut at Loch Lomond. If that does not cheer up Woods, then perhaps only St Andrews can.
A measure of Woods' affinity with the revered links can be assessed by the odds of the bookmakers, who have the 34-year-old almost three times more likely to win The Open than his nearest challenger. Of course, any other year, Woods would be coming into a major at St Andrews – scene of an eight-shot victory in 2000 and then of five shots in 2005 – at around 6-4. Post fire hydrant he now touches 6-1.
Even at that price it would require a leap of faith to invest. In the last few weeks Woods has struggled with his putter and turning up at the huge green otherwise known as the Old Course with anything less than a hot putter represents certain defeat. After the JP McManus Pro-Am in Ireland last Tuesday, he vowed to get to work on his "lag putting". The question was when he'd find the time.
He flew back to Orlando that day and the rumour was that his estranged wife had granted him three days with the children. Unless his private jet has a 20-yard extension which pops out the back, it is difficult to see how he will have managed to put in the hours. This must be the principal doubt this week.
Of course, there will be other question marks. With the new vulnerable Tiger there always will be. Much will be made of the crowd reaction, although that will be overstated. The hecklers have been sparse in the wake of his shame and there's no reason to expect any difference at St Andrews – even though this most well-supported of Open venues saw five streakers arrested in 2000. And then they say that Woods has lost his aura. He knows it; his rivals know it. No longer will they dive in the rough as his unstoppable bandwagon rolls up the fairway. There they will stand and face him down. He's not so big.
Last week, Padraig Harrington supplied an interesting perspective on the whole Woods fear-factor debate. "I am sure there are some players who think he's lost a bit of aura but I would say he's exactly the same," said the Irishman. "Winning, winning, winning is what determines how the golfer is perceived by his peers and it has nothing to do with anything else. The minute Tiger starts winning again he becomes intimidating again. St Andrews could easily be that place."
Harrington has formulated a convincing argument for calling Woods "comfortably the favourite" and it is only partly to do with the statistic which says that out of his six tournaments he has played this year his only two top-10s have come at the majors.
"Tiger has an advantage at St Andrews, and that's because he spins the ball so well," said Harrington, who himself will be going for his third Claret jug in four years. "You know, he's the No 1 player at getting the ball to finish closest to where it lands and the Old Course requires that so much because of the firmness of the greens and how tight the pin positions will be. St Andrews sets up very well for him and he's well capable of winning without hitting his very best form. Is he about to hit that form? I wouldn't write him off, that's for sure."
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