When Tiger Woods last played in an Open at Carnoustie he was king of the golfing world. Perhaps only Roger Federer, who had just won a fifth straight men’s singles title at Wimbledon, could rival him in the field of sports stars at the top of their game.
The year was 2007. The return to Carnoustie was the first major he’d taken part in since becoming a father for the first time. Having triumphed at St Andrews and Royal Liverpool previously, Woods was trying to become the first player for more than half a century to win three Claret Jugs in a row.
The story of how he went from there to his current standing of 71 in the world is well known. He’s currently making headlines after a video of him swearing at something called Tiger Jam, an event hosted by Woods in Las Vegas to raise funds for his charity, was made public.
Even the so-called storms are slightly underwhelming in this new, post-fire hydrant era. Personal issues saw his life career off track.
More pertinently now, his back remains a concern following major surgery. There was no swearing yesterday. Woods was a humble, polite interviewee as he re-appeared in a media tent prior to an Open for the first time in three years.
He had reason to be slightly miffed given some of the morning’s press coverage. Woods, seemingly trying to impress the gathered goons at Tiger Jam, was filmed having a fairly low-grade “rant” while giving a golf clinic. He said he had a message for his rivals, who might (once) have stood quaking on the tee next to him: “If you get intimidated that’s your f*cking issue!”
That’s the trouble. Do they have reason to be intimidated any longer? A new breed of talented American frat boys with a healthy disrespect for others has emerged. Woods was asked yesterday about the likes of Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth and the special relationship they seem to share on the tour.
Woods remembered being an “anomaly” when he first broke through. He turned pro at 20, which was young in those days, but not so much now. His peers were all still playing golf at college before going to qualifying school so took some time to catch up with Woods. In the meantime, he struck up friendships with older players, such as Mark O’Meara, Davis Love, Fred Couples and Payne Stewart. And then came the fall.
Woods still retains an aura. Scot Russell Knox joins him in a group setting off at the unusually late hour, at least for Woods, of 3.21pm tomorrow. Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama completes the threesome. Woods recalled meeting Knox at a barbeque before the Hero World Challenge, the tournament he hosts in the Bahamas, at the end of last year. Knox’s relationship with Woods is longer lasting; he had his poster on the wall of his bedroom while growing up in Inverness. “He is the reason I am playing golf,” said Knox yesterday. He also addressed the intimidation issue.
“Even (Rory) McIlroy came out a few weeks ago and said playing with him was tough so I’m expecting it to be difficult,” said Knox. “To be honest I do care how I play but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with your hero. I’m just floating on air. Play great or play awful, I just have to enjoy it.”
Knox, who won the Irish Open as recently as earlier this month, could be a more realistic contender this week than Woods, who has not won a tournament for five years.
Woods does believe the Open provides him with the best opportunity to take that great leap forward from 14 majors, where he has been stuck since lifting the US Open title in 2008, to 15.
It would be extra special to do it here, where he first developed a long- lasting love of links golf. Woods competed at Carnoustie in the Scottish Open 23 years ago before heading to take part in the Open at St Andrews for the first time.
“It was one of the cooler things,” he recalled yesterday. “Just staying on that range and hitting the ball to the, I guess it would be, 100 yards sign. I was hitting 9-irons and 4-irons and 5-irons and just having a blast trying to hit the sign.
“You know, I hadn’t been able to do that before. I’d never played links golf. This was my first time. I remember my dad on the range with me saying, ‘Are you ever going to hit the ball past the 100 yard sign?’ And I said: ‘No, I’m just enjoying this. Are you kidding me? This is the best’.
“So I spent probably about close to two hours on the range just hitting balls before I even went and played because I thought it was just the best, seeing the ball bounce and being creative and using my mind.”
Here was a wistful Tiger rather than a foul-mouthed one. He seemed to yearn to still be there, hitting shots to a sign just for the hell of it, his father by his side.
Woods was asked if he now had a subconscious fear about playing tough, brutal courses. It’s the type of question you could not have dreamed would be asked in the same tent 11 years ago. It was the glory game then. Tiger’s glory game.
When once Woods might have bristled, he complimented the reporter: “You know, that’s a really great question”.
He confessed to having had doubts when setting off at Torrey Pines at the beginning of this year when making his latest comeback. He admitted feeling vulnerable when he viewed the thick rough. These really are extraordinary times.