Tiger finds the missing links

'There is no grey area. Everyone has a strong opinion of Woods and most of them want to bet on him'; Tim Glover follows the world's No 1 on his Troon journey of discovery
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The Independent Online
Tiger Woodsknew it was going to be a difficult week when he bounced his ball into rough during his first practice round. "You are not going to turn this place into a pitch-and-putt course," a weather-beaten native of Troon informed the phenomenon.

Tiger may have had more helpful advice in the course of his fabulous career, but the Old Troonian had a point. Woods shredded the record-books when he won the Masters at Augusta by 12 strokes, prompting speculation that the game was at the mercy of a 21-year-old who could do things with a golf ball that nobody had done before.

Woods not only gave the sport a huge shot of adrenaline, but the bookmaking industry should consider erecting a statue in his honour. "There has been a massive increase in turnover," said the man from Sporting Index. "There is no grey area. Everybody has a strong opinion of Tiger and most of them want to bet on him."

In Las Vegas, Tiger was backed down to what appeared to be a ludicrous 2-1 to win The Open in a 156-horse field. They refused to see beyond Tiger but they failed to spot the Woods for the trees or, more specifically, the gorse bushes.

In links golf he has not yet earned his stripes. Until yesterday. Tiger only made the half-way cut with a stroke to spare and on Friday evening he was telling the world and his wife that he could still win. Only Team Tiger and those in Nevada believed him and their faith was rewarded with a 64. It equalled the course record set by Greg Norman in the final round of The Open in 1989.

If anything, the weather was even kinder yesterday, the missing link being the absence of a breeze. Woods got the start he had been looking for with birdies at the first two holes, going to the turn in 32. The New Zealander Frank Nobilo was good company, but he couldn't run with the Tiger over the back nine.

Woods's performance here could be compared with the weather in Tenerife - sometimes in the 70s, occasionally in the 60s. His driving was still unreliable. On the seventh, his ball hit a young girl on the head. It rebounded on to the fairway, and he made birdie. Although he was in trouble at the 11th, he survived the ordeal and then provided a twist in the tail with an eagle at the 16th, a chip-in birdie at the 17th and a par-saving putt on the 18th. At three under for the championship, he was back in the hunt.

Less than two years ago, Tiger was beaten by Gary Wolstenholme in the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl. Wolstenholme is an experienced amateur, but is acknowledged as a short hitter. On the face of it, it was a mismatch, a peashooter against magnum force, but Wolstenholme, in the face of a gale, did Tiger at the 18th.

In the interim, of course, Tiger has blazed away to such effect that by the time he arrived on the Ayrshire coast he was not only the wealthiest young man on the planet, but had also established himself as the world No 1, feats achieved in indecent haste.

Troon, though, is no Augusta National. For one thing, it is 98 years older than Tiger and for another it has extremely narrow fairways, not that Woods saw too many of them over the opening rounds.

The first hole he played in the championship should have taught him something. An inviting par four of 364 yards, it is invariably played downwind and is well within his compass. On Thursday lunchtime, his drive drifted left of the fairway and he found a bunker. Although he was almost pin-high, he had to form a balancing act, his left leg in the sand, his right perched on the bank. He hit it over the green into a bunker on the right and did well to save par on a hole that should have yielded him a birdie, if not an eagle.

It seemed to set the tone for the day. His body-language was monosyllabic, hands plunged in pockets when he wasn't blowing his nose, and although he had his moments, he did not look as if he was enjoying the experience.

About the only fairway he hit was the fourth, but what a hit. Even weather- beaten old Troonies were gobsmacked. Tiger's caddie, Fluff, reckoned it travelled 435 yards, leaving the master with a nine-iron to the green on a par five of 557 yards. It's the back nine that sorts out the men from the boys and they don't come any tougher than the 11th, The Railway, a par five by birth but converted into a four. In the first round, Tiger managed to convert it into a seven. After taking a penalty drop out of a gorse bush, he hit a two-iron about 100 yards into further trouble. What on earth was he thinking of? A two-iron? His priority had to be to get it back on the fairway. Under the circumstances, a 72 was fairly respectable.

On Friday, the wind had dropped, but he failed to cash in. He missed a couple of short putts early on and at the 10th, which is not far short of the 11th in terms of difficulty, he racked up a quadruple bogey eight, during which the longest hitter in the world managed to move the ball all of six yards, in a 74. Tiger was in hostile country, falling into carefully laid traps and he did not appear to have the experience to extricate himself without bearing a large thorn in his side. He maintained that he liked the links; he thought they were "neat" and that he just happened to have two bad holes.

In his defence, nobody had entered an Open surrounded by such megahype and a lot of the stories in the build-up were apocryphal. He did not request an armed guard (are Nike going to make him a bullet-proof vest?) and the four minders he got were not ex-SAS but enthusiasts from the Army Golf Society. They wore identical blue coats and were armed with umbrellas. An old joke is that somebody who hits it left, right, left, right is playing military golf and Tiger's squad had their work cut out keeping tabs on him.

Was he perhaps suffering from a cold, he was asked. "I haven't got a cold," he said. "I've got allergies."

Perhaps he is allergic to Fluff's ample moustache. What has certainly got up his nose is not so much the noise of trains and planes and yells of "Go get 'em Tiger" as the clicking of amateur photographers. "I ask them not to do it, but they do it anyway. I haven't had a lot of help from the marshals."

There was no escape. In response to a question about Nike (who are supposed to be paying him pounds 40m) and their practice of using cheap labour in Asian factories, Tiger said: "No one has asked me that before. I chase a little white ball around, that's all I do."

Not quite. To coincide with The Open, advertising hoardings have appeared with a huge picture of Tiger endorsing American Express, with the message: "If you are going to take on the world, you'd better be prepared."

For everything.

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