“His schedule doesn’t make a lot of sense,” opined Paul McGinley, the 2014 Ryder Cup-winning captain, in the build-up to the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush. “We don’t know where he is with his fitness, we don’t know where he is with his health, we just don’t know a whole lot about anything to do with him at the moment.”
As his rivals in the Claret Jug event were warming up for its first visit to the County Antrim venue since 1951, Woods was on a two-week family holiday in Thailand. By all accounts, his game has been a bit ragged in practice since turning up here on Sunday and, having undergone four back operations in the last four years, McGinley’s misgivings seem perfectly understandable.
Woods, though, insisted that his new light scheduling is simply due to him seeking longevity after privately confiding fears at the 2017 Masters dinner that he believed his career was over but then enjoying an unexpected second summer. “I played too much; I played 17 events,” said the 43-year-old of his comeback campaign last year, which hit giddy heights as he won the Tour Championship in Atlanta but then ended on a disappointing note as he then failed to contribute anything points-wise in a Ryder Cup hammering for the US in France. “The body was pretty beat up and I was worn out,” he added.
“So this year I made a conscious effort to cut back on my schedule to make sure that I don’t play too much. I want to play here as long as I possibly can. And you have to understand, if I play a lot, I won’t be out here that long. So it’s understanding how much I can play, prepping how much I do at home and getting ready. And that’s the tricky part is trying to determine how much tournament play I need to get a feel for the shots and also understanding where my body is.” Twelve months ago, Woods sent a surge of electricity across the course at Carnoustie as his name appeared at the top of the leaderboard with eight holes to play in the final round. “Screwing up” by dropping three shots in two holes cost him his chance to claim the Claret Jug for a fourth time on that occasion.
But, having finally moved off 14 majors after being stuck on that mark for nine years, he believes this event is his best chance to keep edging closer to toppling 18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus as the game’s greatest player. “It does,” he insisted. “It allows the players that don’t hit the ball very far or carry the ball as far to run the golf ball out there. And plus, there is an art to playing links golf. It’s not, okay, I have 152 yards, bring out the automatic 9-iron and hit it 152. Here, 152 could be a little bump-and-run pitching wedge. It could be a chip 6-iron. It could be a lot of different things.
“Being able to control it as best as you possibly can in the air to control it on the ground allows the older players to have a chance to do well in the Open Championship,” he added before highlighting examples of past winners going close again. “Look what Tom [Watson] did at Turnberry, what Greg [Norman] did at Birkdale,” he pointed out.
Learning a new venue for the event has been an added challenge for Woods this week. He described it as an “unbelievable course” and is expecting a stiff challenge in wind set to blow from different directions over the four days. He’s not quite as bullish about his chances, though, as he was heading into the Masters. “It’s not quite as sharp as I’d like to have it right now,” he said of his game. “My touch around the greens is right where I need to have it. I still need to get the shape of the golf ball a little bit better than I am right now. I’m going to have to be able to cut the ball, draw the ball, hit at different heights and move it all around.”
Will he be “shaking it all about” if he gets his hands back on the Claret Jug on Sunday night for the first time since 2006?
“I’ve got a few days to work on that part,” he replied with a smile to being asked if he’d be soaking up the Portrush party atmosphere if he won here. “Let’s take it one step at a time.” Guinness? “No, not this week. In the past… um,” he added with one of the biggest smiles we’ve ever seen from him.
Since his career was re-ignited, Woods has undoubtedly been more prepared than he had been in the past to show a human side. Heck, this press conference even had him offering up a “funny story”.
Referring to Brooks Koepka, the world No 1 who has finished first-second-first-second in the last four majors, he said: “I texted Brooksie, congratulations on another great finish. What he’s done in the last four major championships has been just unbelievable. To be so consistent, so solid. He’s been in contention to win each and every major championship.
“And I said, Hey, dude, do you mind if I tag along and play a practice round? I’ve heard nothing! (laughing).”