Tiger Woods returned to Muirfield yesterday for the first time since his bittersweet – though he will remember it as mostly bitter – experience here in 2002, when he shot what remains his worst professional round of 81 on that memorable, storm-tossed Saturday.
He was met by rather different conditions yesterday, with the sun quickly burning away the clouds that had formed overnight. Indeed, a whole lot is different to back then. On this occasion, the blonde companion who followed Woods around – in the company of Glenn Greenspan, his public relations manager – was girlfriend Lindsey Vonn. In 2002, it was his then wife, Elin.
A successful sportsperson in her own right in the world of alpine skiing, Vonn her way mostly unnoticed, in jeans and Under Armour top – the company which it is said is now going “head to head” with Nike, Woods’ long-time sponsors.
Now and again, Vonn was politely asked for her autograph. However, she seemed content to let Woods be the focus of attention, taking the strain off her recently rebuilt right knee by sitting in the driver’s seat of a course buggy that had been left unattended by the green at the second hole.
Clearly conscious of his own injury woes, Woods played just nine holes and had left the course by shortly after 1pm, with jet lag about to kick-in. Not many here yesterday could say they had stepped straight off a private jet from the United States – indeed, this high-end form of transport in which he arrived is one of the few constants linking Woods to his life before such huge emotional convulsions as the death of his father and a divorce.
When The Scotsman arrived at Muirfield on Woods-watch duties yesterday morning, the pilot of the golfer’s private plane had still to request permission to land at Edinburgh airport. Woods didn’t touch down from Florida until 8am. Remarkably, he still managed to be at the driving range at Muirfield at just after 10am as he sought to blow away the cobwebs.
Cobwebs, along with hats, umbrellas and anything else that wasn’t nailed to the ground, were certainly blown away on that Saturday afternoon in 2002, when Woods’ bid to win his third successive major was knocked violently off-course.
Less well remembered is his admirable response the following day, when he came back after the humiliation – the front page of several Sunday sports supplements simply used the number ‘81’ as a headline – and shot a six under par 65. He behaved like a champion on both days, having, he said, “tried my heart out” to score 81 in the worst of the weather and then playing beautifully in the fourth round, in rather more clement conditions.
His behaviour has been far from exemplary at times, but he was beyond reproach over those few days, when he was, as now, the most scrutinised athlete in the world. Not quite so savoury was the reaction of those who packed into hospitality tents in search of shelter, and who responded to his troubles with glee. Woods was without doubt the man to beat then. In the previous five years, he had won eight major titles in total. In the 11 years since, he has won only six.
Clearly, various injuries have played a part in this much less dynamic return. He erred on the side of caution yesterday with regard to his latest ailment, a left elbow complaint that greatly hampered his performance at the US Open and saw him withdraw from the AT&T National at Congressional last month.
He played the front nine in the jovial company of Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, and it was noticeable that he didn’t flinch once when playing a variety of shots, and a variety of balls, at each hole. Woods greeted Johnson with a chest bump at the driving range and at times laughed uproariously with both of his playing partners, as the sun beat down and tankers inched silently down the Firth of Forth.
“This is more like it,” said Woods at one point. On the narrow par 5 fifth hole, he recalled that terrible Saturday in 2002, when what many described as the worst conditions they have ever played in took a grip on Muirfield. “I hit driver, 2-iron, 2-iron to this hole,” he remembered, pointing out that his tee shot had barely reached the fairway in the tempest.
Yesterday, he needed just two 5-woods to make it to the green. Indeed, he did not reach for his driver at all yesterday, something that bolsters his chances this week.
The ball is running freely – perhaps too freely – on the flint-hard ground.
The dry summer has lent the links a rather retro look. We have been invited to remember what parched turf looks like in Scotland. When did a Scottish golf course last appear so brown? At Turnberry, for the Duel in the Sun in ‘77 perhaps? How good it would be if we were blessed with another battle extraordinaire here, a mano-a-mano contest, between, perhaps, Woods and Rory McIlroy, who also practiced here yesterday.
Jason Day, another likely Claret Jug contender, believes the dry weather has helped make the course an even more testing proposition. As well as concentrating on honing his own game, he made sure he watched what Woods was doing yesterday.
“I was just seeing what he was going to hit off certain tees,” Day explained later. “The last time he played here was ‘02 and the course has obviously changed since then.
“I think he is going to keep the driver in the bag as much as is possible – the same as me. We have to try and get the ball low to the ground because of the wind. I did not hit a driver out there the last two days, so hopefully I can keep the driver out of the bag and keep the 1-iron in.
“I am praying that it stays like this because I think it makes the course a lot tougher,” he added. “I know that rain and wind are obviously tough to play in, but dry conditions where the ball is running out of the fairway, and when you can get unlucky bounce, is worse. There is a little bit of luck to playing the Open. But you have to really golf your ball around Muirfield.”
That surely suits Woods, who, providing he is in top physical condition, can golf a ball around a golf course better than anyone. All seems well, for now.