Woods makes open and shut case to fulfil Mission Roger
Shotmaking ability and obedient driver give Tiger ideal platform to catch Federer with major No 15
When Tiger Woods today turns up at Turnberry for his first look at the Ailsa Course it could just be akin to the first time Robert the Bruce peered across the Firth of Clyde and decided this is where he was always meant to rule. Arguably the game's greatest ever player taking on arguably the world's greatest links... surely a golfing match made in heaven.
That's the romantic view, anyway. The reality will be rather more cold, more calculating. Woods will barely notice the stunning scenery (the lighthouse, the Ailsa Craig, the Isle of Arran) and will not pay a nanosecond's thought to any legends who may or may not have duelled there before. It will be plotting time as he embarks on Mission Roger (catch Federer for major No 15).
The general perception is that the notes will fall all so easily on to Woods' yardage book. Of course, the weather on this exposed patch of Scotland's south-west coast is in the habit of laying best-laid plans to waste. But if it is as set fair as the forecasters suggest it will be, then the implication is clear as far as Woods is concerned. Turnberry '09 could be another Hoylake '06.
It is a theory which Padraig Harrington is happy enough to extrapolate, despite the humbling memories of an Open Championship in which Woods came closer than ever to playing "an entirely different game" to his rivals. Famously – infamously, even – Woods employed the driver just once at Royal Liverpool, on the 16th hole during his first round, and instead forsook length for direction, using two-irons, as well as the occasional three-wood.
"If the weather is nice, yeah, Tiger could definitely do that," said Harrington, who, with his back-to-back Opens just happens to be the last man to have lifted the Claret Jug since the world No 1. "That performance at Hoylake was remarkable. Nobody else could have played the way he played that course.
"It was phenomenal, his control, distance control, his ball-striking, to hit it in to those greens from those distances. If Turnberry gets hard, he will be able to do it again. Necessarily it depends on the wind and on the firmness of the fairways and the greens, but I'm actually thinking to myself that I want to do a lot of threading between bunkers and things."
In truth, there are a few glaring differences between now and then. While the necessity to keep it out of the rough did not burn uppermost in the minds of Tiger's peers on the Wirral, in Ayrshire this will be the majority gameplan. The foolish, the ignorant and yes, the downright petrified will carry on booming, but the sane and the savvy will remain in cabbage-avoidance mode from start to finish.
What this entails is naturally dictated by the individual's accuracy with the big club and in this regard, it is all rather contrasting for Woods than three years ago. Then he arrived at the year's third major with his driver in far from obligatory mood. This time it is being faithful to the point of unshakeable loyalty. At his last three tournaments the fairways have been located with startling regularity and was the primary factor in his two victories. Meanwhile, the second of the events – the US Open, no less – was thrown away on the greens. The sodden putting surfaces at Bethpage took a map to traverse and it is no secret, to anoraks or Europe Ryder Cup captains, how Woods hates a slow green.
There will be no brakes put on balls at bumpy old Turnberry. The challenges for Woods will lie elsewhere. He would never admit to loving The Open more than any other major but he does. The creativity it requires defines his superiority and last week he eagerly went into visionary work with his coach Hank Haney. "It's making sure you can flight your ball and making sure you can manoeuvre it both ways because over there you don't know what kind of weather you're going to get," he said. "You're going to get years like we had at St Andrews when it was perfect, or you can get a day like the one we had at Muirfield [in 2002]. You just don't know, and you have to be able to be confident in controlling your golf ball."
For this reason, there is no reason why Woods should not, at 2-1, be considered as warm a favourite as he was at Bethpage. "Nope there isn't," agrees Peter Kostis the CBS swing analyst and Golf.com columnist. "Tiger has made dramatic improvements in controlling his swing and has been getting better and better this season. When his rhythm and effort are under control, he is swinging beautifully. Tiger has plenty of power, tremendous creativity, a knack for making clutch putts, and more experience in the spotlight than anyone else."
The last point Kostis makes is interesting, because in his main role he is the coach of Paul Casey. With Phil Mickelson missing this Open due to his wife's battle with breast cancer, the Englishman is, at No 3, the man ranked most likely to challenge Woods. Can Casey handle the attention that will bring, particularly if he gets into contention and, as no Brit has won a major in a decade? Indeed, could any of Casey's countrymen handle the hype? Lee Westwood, who must be given a huge chance in light of his recent brilliance in Paris and now Loch Lomond, spoke last year of the unbearable demands placed on the home hopes and in Scotland he provided further explanation.
"It's an intense week," he said. "If you could just go in there and not talk to anybody, it would be a massive result. Unfortunately it's The Open Championship. And I'm British."
Perhaps it will take someone of the unerring self-belief of Ian Poulter to end the drought which is in danger of standing at 40 come Sunday evening. Listening to him detail his last year and conclude how better equipped he is to go one better than at Birkdale 12 months ago, it is difficult not to be seduced by Poulter's chance. He has the big-time form (second at The Players in May), he has the big-time ranking (16) and last September he had the big-time career-changing experience.
"That Ryder Cup was huge," said the 33-year-old. "It was the biggest turning point in the last 10 years. After being named a wildcard I got it from every direction from two weeks – 'You shouldn't be there, you're not worthy of a pick'. I was kicked black and blue before I got to the first tee. To stand there and deliver was very satisfying.
"It's always been that way for me. I remember being 14 and the English teacher dragging me out the classroom by the ear and poking me in the chest, telling me, 'You'll never make it as a golf pro'. He'd caught me practising my grip with the club I kept next to my desk. I learned then that it doesn't matter what anybody else believes. So am I better equipped this time? Of course. After everything that's happened to me over the last year I've become stronger. So I do think I have a good chance at Turnberry if I play like I've played the whole season."
Tiger might have something to say about that. As, indeed, might Turnberry. Together they could provide the open and shut case for true greatness.
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