Woods to pass the Troon test

The American golfing phenomenon is ideally equipped for the Open's links challenge, his rivals tell Andy Farrell
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The Independent Online
Some 35 years ago, Arnold Palmer conjured a performance of typical brilliance at Troon and so helped launch the Open Championship into the modern era. It was Palmer's second consecutive victory and thousands gathered to see the charismatic American. It also ensured that the best players in the world would annually flock to experience the mysteries and the vagaries of the British seaside links.

Tiger Woods arrives at Royal Troon next week as the game's latest talisman, and possibly its best player ever. "This is the first chance for people to see him in the flesh as professional," Brian Anderson, the club pro for 26 years, said. "I am sure there will be a record gate."

Woods' career, launched as a three-time US Amateur champion last September, has been mesmerising and unmissable to date, and his activities at the 126th Open will be no different. The Woods Phenomenon has gone far past the sports pages, taking in controversies of various hues and fuelled by his father Earl's assertion: "Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity."

This was a heavy burden to place on the 21-year-old self-styled "Cablinasian' - he is part Caucasian, part black, part native American and part Asian - but one partly shouldered by endorsements totalling almost $100m (pounds 61m). His victory last week at the Western Open in Chicago was his sixth in 21 starts on the US Tour and took him back to the top of the world rankings.

Some of those wins have been achieved with what he calls his "B" or "C" game. For a demonstration of his "A" game look no further than his US Masters victory, where he became the youngest winner, set the lowest score and won by the biggest margin. A spell of tournaments in which Woods, who has yet to miss a cut as a pro, did not contend, including the US Open where he was 19th, led to talk of a slump. All he needed was a week at home with his feet up to dispel such nonsense.

In two previous appearances at the Open as an amateur, Woods finished 68th at St Andrews in 1995, and 22nd last year at Royal Lytham, his best result to then in a pro event and significant in his decision to turn pro a month later. Conditions in Lancashire were dry and calm, while Troon, on the Ayrshire coast, may present a sterner test.

Woods has overpowered courses all around the world, but Troon, while presenting a long-haul back nine of 3,650 yards with a miserly par of only 35, requires more of its would-be conquerors. Tam arte quam marte is the club's motto, meaning "As much by skill as by strength".

Woods' length off the tee was the dominant factor in his Masters victory. He averages more than 320 yards swinging at only 75 per cent, is 6ft 2in and weighs 11st.

"The Holy Grail of golf is power and accuracy," said Rick Adams who, with Mark Glynn, form the Taylor Made Long Driving team. "Tiger hits the ball with low spin, both backwards and forwards and sideways. That means he generates lots of roll, and the ball flies straighter."

This is due to his textbook swing. "There is width when he takes the club away and he maintains that width throughout the swing. He does not make the arc any shallower during the swing, it remains on the same plane. It's like a smothering of the ball. If you play a table tennis shot and you want to hit it with side spin, it is a short, choppy action. But if you want top spin, it is a long movement."

Central to this is the stability Woods creates in his legs. "If you watch his legs during the swing, they are totally planted as this massive coil is going on in his upper body. The legs don't move, so he can whip his arms through at pace."

Nick Faldo, confirmed this. "The only time I can create such arm-speed," he said, "is when I drive with my elbow hanging out of the car window."

But while huge hitting and inspired putting served him fine at the Masters, Troon will require more of the Mozart of the greens. "The most important thing for Tiger will be his club selection," Anderson said. "He has to choose the right clubs to make sure he is on the fairways. He will be using a lot of irons off the tee. The rough is very penal. It's not like Augusta, where you can hit the ball anywhere."

Greg Norman, twice an Open champion, visited Troon last weekend. "The fairways are down to 28-32 yards," he reported. "The rough is not thick all the way round, but it is there in patches and where it is, it is 10- inch long wispy grass. I don't care how strong you are, that grabs your shaft and the harder you try to hit it, the more it goes left. Everyone will go in it and everyone will have problems."

Norman, who set the course record with a 64 in 1989 before being foiled in the play-off by Mark Calcavecchia, describes the uniqueness of playing links golf by as when "you hit two-irons from 98 yards and 108 yards, stuff like that. You don't practice those shots, but you are hoping, in a sadistic way, that you have to play them some time because it is such a challenge. You don't play any of that golf in America."

The American Payne Stewart has finished in the top 10 five times at the Open, including at Troon in '89. "The first time I played the British Open was at St Andrews in '84 and I hated the course," he recalled. "Now St Andrews is right up there as one of my favourite courses. It takes time, but you learn to love links golf for what it is. You have to focus down more.

"You have to see the ball bouncing around on the ground and rolling. In the States, you are seeing the ball up and you have nice conditions. Generally, at the British Open, you get some nasty weather, so you have to bring the ball down to keep it out of that, and then you have to see it bounce around a little bit and have some imagination to see it catch on that hump and roll down here.

"It is fun, a challenge to manoeuvre the ball around. At Troon, you have to mind your p's and q's. There are some holes you play away from the pin and some holes you attack the pin. Take the Postage Stamp (the par-three eighth). It could be an eight-iron, it could be a pitching wedge, but you don't miss the green to the right, or long. So when they put the pin in the back right corner, yes, you'd like to put it in really close but you'd better be short of the hole.

"St Andrews will suit Tiger Woods' game to a tee, in the same way it did John Daly in '95. Troon is a little different. You have to scuttle it around the bunkers. But he can do things with a golf ball that I can't relate to. His biggest asset is the control he has of his game."

One area Woods has had difficulty is playing in the wind, but the tearaway amateur, whose distance control with his irons was off beam when he lost to Gary Wolstenholme in the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl in 1995, is no more. Woods, though, hits his short-iron shots so high that he can still get into trouble. In a windy final round of the Colonial in May, he caused a shock by failing to convert a winning position on the back nine.

Anderson, for one, thinks we will be seeing a new Woods, hitting little knockdown shots and chip and runs. "A player of his accomplishment will be able to adjust very quickly," he said. "It was always said that the Ryder Cup should go to a links course, but the history of American success at the Open shows that they can adapt to play links golf as well as anybody."

The last four winners at Troon (Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson and Calcavecchia) have all been American, as have the champions in the past two years. The frightening prospect is that the way Troon is set up, with three short par-fours he could drive and two par-fives in the first six holes, Woods could make Norman's feat of starting with six birdies in his final round eight years ago appear a conservative opening. As Norman said: "He is good enough to deal with any weather and any golf course."

You have been warned.