HE wants to play the Old Course backwards one day, but this week is all about going forward for Tiger Woods. The undisputed world No 1 when he won Open Championships at St Andrews in both 2000 and 2005, he’s returned to the home of golf in alien territory, lying 241st in the global standings.
It seems inconceivable that the 39-year-old can turn the formbook on its head, especially with Jordan Spieth looking like a thoroughbred at the moment, but this is St Andrews and there’s nowhere, not even Augusta National, that gets Woods’ juices going more than the Old Course.
I played well at Greenbrier and hit the ball the best I had hit in two years on the SundayTiger Woods
There was a sparkle in his eyes as the three-times Open champion spoke about this week’s test in his pre-event press conference, which had people standing ten deep out the entrance – proof that he still has the biggest pulling power in the game even though he’s currently wedged between Japan’s Ikjae Jang and Englishman Paul Waring in the world rankings rather than challenging Rory McIlroy and Spieth for the No 1 spot.
Woods has also arrived in St Andrews with a spring in his step, having shaken off three wretched performances in a row by carding four rounds in the 60s, including a bogey-free closing effort, in the Greenbrier Classic a fortnight ago to hand himself a timely boost heading into the season’s third major.
It’s now more than seven years since Woods landed one of those titles. His reply to being asked if he’d accepted that the five majors he needs to overhaul Jack Nicklaus as the game’s greatest player was becoming unrealistic, though, was undoubtedly the stick-out statement from Woods ahead of the 144th Open Championship. “No, not at all,” he declared. “I’m still young. I’m not yet 40. I know some of you guys think I’m dead and buried, but I’m still right here in front of you. I love competing and I love playing these events.”
Earlier, he’d been asked if “retirement” had ever crossed his mind during the struggles he’s had since undergoing back surgery last year. Not for the first time over the past few months, he took a light-hearted approach to that word being mentioned. “I don’t have my AARP card yet,” he said, referring to something that Americans become eligible for at 50 and gets them discounts and special offers, “so I’m a bit away from that.”
Despite all his recent woes – he’s twice shot scores in the 80s this year – you had a feeling that this week was always one that Woods could use as the springboard to turn things around. The fact he showed significant signs of improvement in his most recent outing has given him the confidence to prove those golfing obituaries were indeed premature.
“I ended up playing well at Greenbrier and hit the ball the best I had hit it in probably two years on the Sunday,” he said. “So that was awfully nice to be able to do coming into this week. And I’ve hit the ball just as well in my practice rounds on a course I’ve always loved from the first time I played it back in 1995 (as an amateur). I just love the creativity.
“The first thing I heard about St Andrews is that all you do is hit it as hard as you can and aim left. That’s basically not how to play the golf course. You have to put the ball on certain sides of the fairways to have the angle to get the ball close. A five-degree wind shift here also changes the golf course completely. I’ve always found that very fascinating.”
Helped by four rounds in the 60s, Woods romped to an eight-shot win here in 2000, having also turned the US Open into a procession that year.
He then recorded a five-shot success in 2005, but neither of those events were played on a course as soft and lush as the one this week. “The only time I’ve ever seen it like this was when we played the Dunhill Cup in 1998,” he said, referring to what was a team event at the time and also played much later in the year. It’s soft and going to get softer with the weather forecast for Friday. Actually, yesterday I hit two wedge shots that actually backed up and I can’t ever remember that happening on this course. I think we’re going to have to fly the ball a little deeper into the greens and be a little bit more aggressive than in years past.”
Woods was close to last after slumping to an opening 80 in the US Open at Chambers Bay last month before missing the cut. Can he possibly have improved that much in such a short space of time and finally kick-start his major career after being stuck on 14 since the 2008 US Open?
He certainly thinks so and believes the Greenbrier performance was the big turning point he’d been searching for since linking up with a new coach, Chris Como.
“I was still learning a new golf swing,” he said of where he was in his game 12 months ago compared to now. I had some pretty major flaws in my technique and that’s why I shut down after Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach. Consequently, I was able to turn things around and had a chance to win The Masters this year (a closing 73 eventually saw him tie for 17th after two promising middle rounds at Augusta National). We made another shift at The Memorial and it worked out perfectly. I hit the ball great at Greenbrier.
“It was the first time I had led proximity to the hole with my iron play in I don’t know how many years. It’s been a while. So that was a very good sign. As bad as I putted that week, I was only four shots off a play-off.”
While he definitely will have his game face on this week, Woods revealed he’s keen to come back here one day to play the Old Course the way it was originally played – backwards! “Before I die I want to do that one time,” he said of hitting from the first tee to the 17th green, second to 16th and so on. “I think that would be a blast because you can see how certain bunkers were put there.”