IT WAS a promotional event and as Tiger Woods sat in the middle of the first fairway at the Old Course, St Andrews, yesterday, with thousands of pairs of eyes and phones trained on him as well as a television camera while he was interviewed, there was a moment to savour.
Despite an intimidating army of minders, bouncers and public relations folk, all decked out in their black and grey Nike ensembles and desperately trying to call the shots and co-ordinate matters, keeping mere mortals out of shot and preventing them from getting too close to the golfing god, metres away there was a carefree toddler happily adhering to the sponsor’s catchphrase. “Just Do It.” This kid did.
Oblivious to the regimentation and growing tension among fans who had been intending to walk the course before their plans were curtailed by the massed ranks of commercialism intervened, the youngster squealed with delight as he ran around, caring not a jot about the tv interview that was going on and gleefully unaware of the impatient glares coming from the Woods entourage.
Woods, remaining focused, who had been mentoring a handful of young amateurs through the final three holes at the home of golf, continued chatting about his past glories and his recent struggles. He said he plans to play on into his 40s, reminding the interviewer that milestone is a matter of months away, but ruling out the notion of him still plodding around courses as a pensioner reliving past triumphs while being acutely aware that the sun had set on any chance of adding to them. He spoke about his body, his game, his mindset and he stressed the importance of helping the next generation of golfers by passing on knowledge, recounting times when he had been on the receiving end of such lessons and revealing the impact they had on his career.
It was all interesting stuff and offered nuggets to be savoured when it eventually airs, but as the child’s peals of laughter interjected it was easy to ponder the last time Woods was ever so carefree on a golf course. A prodigious talent, if he was ever that joyful and relaxed, it was a long time ago, before he was gobbled up into the Tiger bubble he now inhabits. At the top of his game, when he was racking up major after major – two of them on this very course, in 2000 and 2005 – he was under constant scrutiny. In recent times his personal and professional woes have been just as minutely documented, allowing him little freedom to display such emotional abandon.
But yesterday, despite all the hullaballoo, the radio crackle and the synchronising of watches favoured by his commercial gang and hangers on, he looked as carefree as he has in a long time.
Walking down the 16th, 17th and 18th holes on a course where he feels at home, he happily interacted with the young golfers who were living out a dream scenario. Not only playing on the most famous course on the planet, they were doing it alongside arguably the most famous and most recognisable golfer in the world.
Speaking afterwards, he spoke of his memories of playing practice rounds with the likes of Seve Ballesteros and getting the opportunity to pick the brain of greats like Gene Sarazen and claimed that golf was a sport “where we pass on knowledge”. He appeared to revel in that role of guru, almost oblivious to the multiplying mass of followers.
Earlier in the day, with the sun in the sky and all the Open grandstands being dressed with all their trappings, a handful of competitors headed out to get a feel for the course which will try to humble them next week. They were joined by people hugging the edge of the fairways, walking dogs and babies. The locals were looking for some exercise and fresh air, visitors were beside themselves as they snapped up images they will forever treasure. But as chatter of his presence spread, the sprinkling of punters who had been enjoying walking the hallowed turf which will soon host the best the game currently has to offer, interrupted their stroll to grab a glimpse of Woods.
The numbers grew quickly and the fact that Keegan Bradley’s dad was one of those queuing to get a photo of the former World No.1 crossing the iconic Swilken Bridge served as the perfect illustration of the man’s pulling power.
He may be struggling to produce the golf of old but his allure is still massive, with few in the game able to draw the galleries as he can.
Having hugged the youngsters and offered some final encouraging words of wisdom, the body language changed slightly as he headed back to the side of the business he enjoys least. In front of the tv cameras he spoke of this being his fifth Open at St Andrews and how that made him feel old, not playing some golf with kids half his age. He looked back at the way the game has evolved since he was their age but said that he wasn’t ready to hang up his clubs just yet.
His body is feeling good, he said, albeit not as elastic as it once was, and the performance at the Greenbrier Classic, where he bounced back from Memorial and US Open torment with his first bogey-free round since the summer of 2013, means he is in a good place mentally as well.
It was never a case of seeking an immediate solution, it has to be a process, with a series of subtle shifts, he said. The shifts have been slight but they have been positive, in golfing terms and psychologically. In West Virginia there were plenty of images of him smiling again. Yesterday, with the Old Course clubhouse providing the backdrop, he flashed more of those beaming grins. He even broke out a laugh as the convoy of buggies set off to take him to the practice range. A local finally broke through the security ranks, determined to shake his hand while others shouted their appreciation with typical Scottish friendliness and wit.
It wasn’t quite the joyful abandon of the toddler but it was a sign that Woods is in a good frame of mind ahead of the 144th Open Championship, if only people can get close enough to see that.