A smiling Tiger Woods, back in fist-pumping form

SUDDENLY, St Andrews has become a mouth-watering proposition for Tiger Woods. Also Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits, the two other venues for the majors to come this season.

Tiger Woods is smiling again. Picture: Getty
Tiger Woods is smiling again. Picture: Getty

Heading into this one, we could not really have envisaged the 14-times major winner having high hopes for the US Open, the Open Championship or the US PGA Championship, but he has proved us all wrong.

The man we had watched – certainly over the opening three days – was the “real” Tiger Woods. He has been back hitting great shots, holing putts and fist pumping in a way he does better than anyone else in the game.

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We saw one on Saturday after he rolled in a birdie putt at the 13th, having snap-hooked his drive there but recovered in a way Woods did so often in his prime. “It’s great to see Tiger back doing fist pumps,” said Chris DiMarco, the player Woods beat in a play-off for his most recent major success, in the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines. “We’ve not seen it in a while and I love that it’s back.”

Woods said on arriving here that he’d “worked my ass off” to get his game back in shape, having looked a sorry soul when he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego before taking a two-month break. The statistics show he wasn’t just spouting hot air. In 54 holes, he had hit 39 greens in regulation – just three less than leader Jordan Spieth. His driving average of 280.33 yards was also similar to Spieth’s. He’d fared better than his young compatriot on the treacherous greens with just one three-putt.

“I’m starting to get my feel back and the distance control on my shots,” admitted Woods. “This is one of the hardest courses to come back on because every shot is often on an uneven lie. It’s hard to replicate that at home, especially in Florida, where it’s flat. I think what I’ve done all week has been pretty good. Having to change my entire release pattern was tough. People have no idea how hard it was to do that. So it’s pleasing to come back here and be in the mix in a major championship.”

Before this week, DiMarco didn’t fancy Woods, who’d slipped outside the world’s top 100 for the first time in more than 18 years, to be a major contender this season. Now he is excited about what might lie ahead for the 39-year-old at the aforementioned venues.

“The Tiger Woods we’ve seen for the last eight or nine months is not the one we’re used to seeing,” added the two-times Ryder Cup player. “But he’s back playing good golf again. His pitching is back as the strength of his game again. If you’d asked me before this week about him being a contender in the other three majors this season, then I’d have said ‘no’. But I’ve changed my mind based on what I’ve seen this week. I’ve gone full circle as he has proved everybody wrong.”

Just as pleasing was the sight of Woods showing a human side for once when he was hugging people left, right and centre on his arrival here on Monday. We’ll see if that lasts, but it would be good if he felt that has helped him make a much better return to competitive golf than we all expected. A Tiger firing on all cylinders would be great for the game as it enters an exciting phase with the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth showing a real hunger. A smiling one would be a real bonus. While some people can’t see it, golf will survive when Woods hangs up his clubs. For the time being, though, there’s no question that he brings something significant to the table when he is playing at his best. Let’s hope that continues to St Andrews and beyond.

Like everyone else, Woods will be encountering a new major test at Chambers Bay when it stages the US Open in June. When it comes to the Old Course, though, he’ll be hoping to have an edge over some of his rivals, having recorded one of his greatest wins there – an eight-shot triumph in the 2000 Open Championship.

Based on previous years, we probably won’t be seeing Woods warm up for his Claret Jug assault in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Gullane. Neither, unfortunately, can we confidently expect to see Spieth there. He’s been loyal to the John Deere Classic – the PGA Tour event the same week – having played in it as an amateur before recording his first victory in it two years ago.