When pressed on the reason for an unwavering belief that he can retrieve his career from such a low competitive ebb, Tiger Woods has a stock answer. “I have done this before.”
It is an exaggeration, of course. Woods has never slipped to his current standing of 241st in the world rankings before bouncing back to win major championships. He has, though, historically answered questions in emphatic fashion.
Ten years ago, Woods arrived at St Andrews as the Masters champion but with doubts over his earlier supremacy. He hadn’t won any major in 2003 or 2004. Vijay Singh usurped Woods as the No1-ranked golfer in the world. Even Ernie Els briefly took the No2 spot.
There was an obvious reason for this. Woods had decided to split with his coach, Butch Harmon, and rebuild his golf swing under the instruction of Hank Haney. It remains as curious now as it did then that the greatest golfer of this and many other generations decided to meddle with an unbeatable model. But Woods did it, with the reasoning: “Only two players have ever truly owned their swings: Moe Norman and Ben Hogan. I want to own mine. That’s where the satisfaction comes from.” He added: “I felt like I could get better.” The 134th Open was to endorse that stance.
Woods arrived in Fife with confidence. Justifiably so; he had won the 2000 Open at St Andrews by eight shots. The 29-year-old had claimed the Green Jacket in a dramatic play-off with Chris DiMarco. With respect, the defending Open champion Todd Hamilton wasn’t viewed as a live threat. Singh, though, undoubtedly was. On the eve of the tournament, Woods was pressed on his joust with the Fijian. “He has been extremely consistent,” said Woods. “Look at the quality of rounds he’s strung together. He’s won a bunch of tournaments. But more importantly he’s been very consistent.
“A personal rivalry? You can’t look at it that way, because we don’t play in the same tournaments all the time. When we do play in the same events, you try to get yourself in position to win. And if you’re there and he’s there, it’s going to be a tougher battle. But you need to get there first. It’s not something that you say: ‘OK, if I beat him I win the tournament.’ There’s a bunch of other guys that are playing that are really good out here.”
Woods teed off at 8.20am. He flew from the traps, claiming the lead before 11am and reaching the turn in 32. Whereas five years earlier he escaped every bunker on the Old Course over four rounds, it took him just seven holes to find sand. Even then, a birdie ensued.
On a burnt, breezy links, only 40 of 156 competitors broke par. Having signed for a 66, Woods led them all. “I am very, very happy. It is a great start to the tournament,” he said.
The Australian Mark Hensby, who was enjoying a brief spell in the golfing spotlight and was a friend of Woods, was one shot adrift. Fred Couples, Luke Donald and José María Olazábal were among those on 68.
St Andrews paused for two minutes, in remembering the victims of the 7/7 bombings, which had happened in London only days earlier. Woods was especially pensive during the silence, a matter later explained by the man himself.
“I was more thankful than anything else because my mom was in a hotel right across the street from where the bomb blew up,” Woods said. “I was very thankful that my mom is still here. It very easily could have been pretty tragic for me personally. I can only imagine what everyone else who was involved, where they lost a loved one or had loved ones hurt, what they might have been going through.”
This belonged to Jack Nicklaus, rather than any of the Open’s leading protagonists. The 18-time major winner was bidding farewell to competitive golf. Commemorative £5 notes, issued to mark this occasion, had become collector’s items. It barely mattered that Nicklaus missed the cut by two strokes.
“It was a pretty special, surreal feeling,” said Donald, who partnered Nicklaus and Tom Watson. “We played the last hole in about 50 minutes. Tom was crying. Jack was saying: ‘Get it together, you silly old fool.’ I was just trying to take it all in. Every spare window had people hanging out. I have the pictures from the Swilcan Bridge framed up in my house now.”
At the business end of proceedings, Woods’ 67 extended his lead to four, now over Colin Montgomerie. Hensby had collapsed to a 77.
Montgomerie, playing alongside Woods and with a swell of home support onside, placed admirable pressure on the nine-time major champion. Woods played the front nine in 36, displaying his first shaky moments of a previously flawless competition therein. Montgomerie and later Olazábal moved to within one of the lead but Woods was to birdie the 18th for a 71 and two-stroke lead after 54 holes. Olazábal was now his closest challenger.
Woods was unmoved by the gallery backing for Montgomerie. “He’s native-born. He’s never won a major championship, and this is the home of golf and this is the best chance in a long time. Obviously the people should be rooting for him, and they were.”
Nick Faldo rolled back the years with a three-two finish. Lloyd Saltman, the 19-year-old from Edinburgh, claimed the silver medal awarded to the leading amateur.
Woods suffered from cold putter syndrome early in his round. Montgomerie profited, reaching the turn in 33 and within one of the American. “I had got two shots back out of the three. At that stage anything can happen,” Montgomerie said. Woods, though, was unmoved: “My whole strategy was, if these guys ahead of me birdie holes, that’s fine. Because if I birdie the same holes, they won’t pick up any ground.”
Yet it didn’t play out that way. Woods bogeyed the 10th but, for the second day in a row, Montgomerie did likewise on 11. The Scot’s challenge was fatally wounded by another dropped shot, this time on the 13th. Montgomerie had to be content with runner-up. “My job from the 10th hole in was to finish second,” Montgomerie admits now. “He was always going to win, even if I had got closer he would have put his foot on the throttle again.”
By the time Woods reached the 72nd fairway, with his applauding mother up ahead, his advantage was five. He was now a multiple winner of all four majors.
Woods dedicated victory to his father, Earl, who was seriously ill and died the following year. “Dad is hanging in there. He’s fighting, as always, being stubborn. We’re trying to do everything to make him be as positive as he possibly can.”
A decade on, Woods will inevitably draw on this reference point.
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