Tiger's comfort zone

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:16 AM ET

On the matter of his many romantic affairs, there is only one that Tiger Woods will speak about publicly, a case of love at first sight that he freely admits remains in his heart to this day.

It was 15 years ago, on his initial trip to the British Isles that Woods, just 19 then, first laid eyes on his windswept beauty.

“I fell in love with the Old Course the first time I ever played it,” said Woods during a press conference in advance of the ATT Championship in Philadelphia. “I played it when the tide changed right when I was at the turn, so I played all 18 holes into the wind. Absolutely fell in love with the golf course.

“I’ve played there in the Dunhill Cup when it’s been freezing and they couldn’t change the cups because the ground was frozen. We’ve all played under different conditions there, and it’s still a great golf course. It’s one of the reasons why I love it so much.”

That affinity for St. Andrews and for links golf has translated into two British Open titles for Woods at the course known as “the home of golf,” a patch of links land where the game has been played for at least 600 years. He also won at Royal Liverpool in 2006.

Those other two times, in 2000 and again in ’05, Woods was on top of his world, ruling the game and living life large, but with no hint of the scandal to come. This week, he returns to these friendly environs, his private life a shambles and the pulse of his game thready and weak from the strain.

In many ways, this 2010 Open Championship is a watershed event for Woods. His return to golf after the scandalous revelations that have cost him his marriage, not to mention a reported $100-million US settlement with his wife Elin, has been less than spectacular.

Though he finished tied fourth at both the Masters and U.S. Open, his other results have been disappointing. The best he could muster in his other three events has been a tie for 46th at the ATT. This from the No. 1-ranked player in the world, who won six times, finished second three times and had 14 top 10s, grossing $10.5 million in prize money in 17 PGA events last season.

Now he finds himself at a place where he has dominated in the past, with his game showing signs of life, especially after his impressive Saturday round at the U.S. Open. The sense is that if Woods can’t make it happen this week, at a place where he feels more comfortable perhaps than at any other venue, then it could be a long time, if ever, before we see the old competitive flame rekindled.

“I’ve got to be more consistent and string together more rounds like I did on Saturday at the Open,” he said. “That was a nice step in the right direction because I would play two or three good holes, then hit a bad shot and that would take the air out of what I had built. During that stretch, I put together about 12 really good holes, and it’s something I hadn’t done all year.

“I think it was nice to have that happen, but I think it was even more important to have it happen in a major championship. I needed to make a run, and I was able to make that run and give myself a really good chance to win the championship. All I had to do was shoot under par on the final day and I would have won the tournament. That was a nice feeling to have and something I hadn’t had this year yet.”

Even as Woods prepares for a tournament at his favourite golf course, his status as world No. 1 is in some jeopardy. Phil Mickelson, who sits at No. 2, is playing in the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond and, if he finishes first or second there, would pass Woods, who has spent 250 weeks atop the rankings.

While that isn’t likely to happen, it’s a sign of how Woods’ dominance has been eroded. Indeed, while Tiger has been distracted this year, a whole new crop of players is emerging, none of them nearly as intimidated by Woods as the previous generation was.

Justin Rose, Anthony Kim, Dustin Johnson, Camillo Villegas, Rory McIlroy, Ricky Fowler and Jason Day are just a few of the 20-somethings making some noise on tour.

But it’s doubtful if any of them can stand up to Tiger at St. Andrews where he has been able to play a strategic game full of nuance and spiced with power. In 2000, the R and A added some bunkers (there are 112 on the course) designed to snare the shots of the long hitters. In 72 holes, on his way to an eight-shot win, Woods didn’t have to make one sand shot. In 2005, he was not quite so precise, but still eased his way around to win by five.

“In the three Opens I have played (at St. Andrews), Tiger has won twice and John Daly once,” said Mickelson this week. “Length is a factor. The further you are able to carry the ball, the more bunkers you are able to eliminate.

“One of the things I have been working on is to try to swing the clubhead faster. I will be swinging much harder than I would normally at an Open Championship where you’re trying to keep the ball in a tighter fairway.”

Woods has a very different perspective. He believes the generous fairways are nothing more than an illusion.

“From the tees, the fairways all look wide, but once you start playing, you realize it’s not that wide,” said Woods. “To get the angles you need to have into these flags, it narrows up very quickly. And then you add wind and where you need to put the golf ball to give yourself chance of getting the ball close, it gets really narrow. You can hit every fairway there and still never have a shot at a flag.”

In the end, though, it all comes down to where his head is at. Nothing about 2010 has been normal for Woods, but as he puts more time and emotional space between himself and the mess that was his personal life, he is starting to feel more comfortable on the golf course.

“Outside the ropes, there are certainly still distractions,” he said. “It is what it is. I think that my life out here on Tour is becoming more normalized, getting out here and talking to (reporters) about the game of golf and why I haven’t won a tournament yet this year or why I hit that shot or this shot. It wasn’t like that at the beginning of the year. But now that certainly has changed, and for the good.”

How good? We’ll find out next week. The man believes he is starting to get dialed in but, if he can’t find that elite game at this place, that is so close to his competitive heart, then he might be further away than even his skeptics believe.


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