The Open: Tiger Woods insists everything is rosy

Tiger Woods practices at Muirfield, where hopes to bring to an end a winless streak of 20 majors. Picture: Jane Barlow
Tiger Woods practices at Muirfield, where hopes to bring to an end a winless streak of 20 majors. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Tiger Woods has been psychoanalysed by so many for so long that he was hardly about to put Rory McIlroy under the microscope when asked about the Northern Irishman’s plummeting fortunes – on the golf course, that is.

Where Nick Faldo led on Monday, Woods refused to follow. Faldo had said that McIlroy needs to concentrate on golf and nothing else. Woods countered by saying, in effect, that McIlroy knows what he’s doing and all of us need to mind our own business.

“People obviously speculate and analyse and hypothesise about what he should or shouldn’t do, but deep down he knows what’s he doing,” said Woods. “I won my first major championship and then I proceeded to alter my swing with Butch [Harmon] and it took me the better part of a year and a half, maybe almost two years, before it really clicked in. I was getting questioned quite a bit through that stage of my career. ‘Why would you do something of that nature?’ There were a lot of questions. ‘Why would you change something that won the Masters by 12 shots?’ I’ve gone through that process and I think he [McIlroy] is going through that right now and is making some alterations. Only he knows it’s for the betterment of his game.”

Woods’ own game? Well, we heard what we expected to hear. Sweetness and light all morning long. Woods would rather poke out his own eyeballs than admit weakness, so his troublesome elbow is trouble no more and his game is, well, right where it needs to be. He feels very good about the way he is playing and in case we missed it the first time he said it again. “Very, very good.” He’s won four times this year so Woods is entitled to feel confident on a course that is as hard as the road, not dissimilar to Hoylake, where he plotted his way to victory in 2006. On the flip side, he hasn’t won a major in five long years. But, hey, that’s not a problem either.

“Even though I haven’t won, I’ve been there in a bunch of them where I’ve had chances. I just need to keep putting myself there and eventually I’ll get some. I think it’s just a shot here and a shot there. It’s making a key up-and-down, getting a good bounce, capitalising on an opportunity. This year at Augusta was one of those examples. I really played well and a good shot ended up having a bad break [his approach to the 15th on Friday; the hit-flag, controversial drop and all the hubbub that followed]. So it’s a shot there. It’s not much.

“It could happen on the first day, it could happen on the last day, but it’s turning that tide and getting the momentum at the right time. That’s what you have to do to win major championships.”

That’s Tiger’s story and he’s going to stick to it. You have to wonder, though, is it more than a shot here and a shot there. Is it just little things that have kept him stuck on 14 majors? Or something more profound? Since winning the US Open on one leg in 2008 he has been top-6 in eight majors but has always been at least three strokes behind the winner.

In 2009 he shot a final round 75 to YE Yang’s 70 and lost by three. He lost by four in two other majors that year, lost to Graeme McDowell by three in the US Open in 2010, by five to Phil Mickelson at Augusta the same year and by four to Charl Schwartzel in 2011. He was four behind Ernie Els at Lytham last summer and four behind Adam Scott at Augusta this year. He’s been close many times, but how close? Just a shot here and a shot there? Just a lucky break away from winning? For five straight years?

The sight of Muirfield conjures up a number of images as regards Woods. Firstly, how dramatically different it looks to the infamous Saturday in 2002 when he shot 81 in the grip of a monsoon. Secondly, how eerily similar the ground conditions are to Hoylake when Woods cantered home having hit just one driver all week.

You want to know how hard and bouncy the fairways are? “I’m hitting a lot of irons off the tee,” said Woods. “On some of the holes, 4-iron was going 280 yards and 3-iron is going over 300 yards. It’s quick. If you hit 3-wood it’ll probably run close to 280-90 yards. Sometimes a little bit more than that. On 17 [575 yard par-5] I hit 3-iron, 3-iron over the green. It all depends on where you land it. That’s the neat thing about links golf. It’s predictable but also unpredictable at the same time.”

Woods, more than most, knows how this course can turn on you, the forecast for showers on that fateful Saturday in 2002 proving as awry as some of Woods’ shots that day. He has said many times that it was the worst conditions he has ever played in, the type of afternoon when you couldn’t even control the umbrella not to mind the golf ball. Like he says; links golf – predictable and unpredictable.

We haven’t seen him since Merion, when he shot 76, 74 on the weekend and left with a sore elbow which he now says has healed perfectly after causing bother in the US Open. “It didn’t feel good,” he said. “Especially in the rough. That rough was dense and lush. I couldn’t get through it. Conversely, just stay out of the damn thing. Put it on the fairway and put it on the green and make your putts. It’s not like I was drawing bad lies on those tee boxes.”

That was about as self-critical as Woods gets. About anything. He was asked about Muirfield’s all-male policy and he ducked it. He was asked if he felt if there was any difference between a golf club that excludes people on the basis of their sex and a course that excludes on the basis of the colour of your skin and he ducked that one, too. “I don’t make the policies here. I’m not a member, so I’m not going to speak for the club.”

Nobody expected him to. Tiger is to controversy what Superman is to Kryptonite. He was once the great invincible of his sport, but no longer. A cavalry of potential winners now exists where before you could look at three or four and didn’t need to look much further. Consider some of his countrymen who have won a major since Woods won his 14th; Stewart Cink, Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson. He wouldn’t be Tiger – a relentless winner of his sport’s major championships – if he wasn’t hurting on the inside. He won’t reveal his emotions – ever – but it’s inconceivable that a man who craved victory as much as Woods did in his pomp is now coping with not winning golf’s biggest prizes.

Of all the numbers he trotted out yesterday about the prodigious distances his irons are going on these hard fairways at Muirfield, the statistic that is most gob-smacking is the zero beside his name from his last 20 majors. It is what it is, as Woods might say.