Woods likes the shape of Lytham

Tiger Woods of the U.S. waits on the 17th green during a practice round ahead of the British Open...

Tiger Woods of the U.S. waits on the 17th green during a practice round ahead of the British Open golf championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes, northern England July 17, 2012. (REUTERS)

JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:47 PM ET

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND - It is four years and counting since Tiger Woods -- the improbable favourite of this British Open he last won down the coast in Hoylake in 2006 -- whipped a great golf course into submission. But you wouldn't have thought so Tuesday.

You wouldn't have though this was a man still running beneath his own long shadow.

Maybe it is his sense that a truce has been called on the doomsday speculation about the scale of personal disintegration signalled by his collision with a fire hydrant 2 1/2 years ago.

Perhaps it is the iron chains of memory linking him to this course which he admires deeply for its challenge to a golfer's creativity and which persuaded him, as a 20-year-old college star, he was ready to join the pros.

Woods made that decision after winning the low amateur's silver medal here at the 1996 Open -- not even 12 months before he swept up his first of 14 major titles by shattering the field at Augusta National. He talked as freely and happily Tuesday about those few formative days as he did an unforgettable meeting with Nelson Mandela at his home in Soweto two years later.

Victory at the British Open this week would return him to the world's No. 1 ranking. Somebody wanted to know if he was surprised at the possibility of such a swift resurrection. His eyes narrowed only slightly when he said "No."

It was maybe the least unpredictable response on a day when Woods seemed not only comfortable in his own skin but thoroughly stimulated by his surroundings.

What he liked about this course, he said, was that it generally looked most kindly on the great ball-strikers. So where better to see the major rebirth of a player who spent the first few years of his professional life redefining the game?

Six years ago he produced a master class in course management at Hoylake but it was a game plan which he believes would be unproductive here. "I have to hit a few more drivers and 3-woods here than I did then. At Hoylake on the downwind holes I was hitting 3- and 4-irons almost 300 yards at times, just because it was so fast and it was blowing.

"The bunkers are staggered differently here. There are some carries to where you have to force it and then stop it or try to skirt past them. You can't just either lay it up or bomb over the top. There has to be some shape to shots. That's one of the reasons you see on the list of champions here that they have been wonderful ball-strikers."

There is an old relish in Woods' voice -- not least when he talks of the impact of the most sublime of those strikers of a golf ball, Seve Ballesteros, when he won his last major here in 1989, finishing with a shot that nestled against the last pin so exquisitely that the brilliant challenge of Nick Price was made to seem, suddenly, like an exercise in futility.

"(Ballesteros) had so much energy," Woods said. "He was just into his round and shaping his shots. But he was holing everything. He was making putt after putt, anything inside 15 or 20 feet was good.

"Those are special days and he had that one at the right time -- and against a guy who was playing pretty well, too."

Woods' special day here is no less vivid. He was wondering about another year at Stanford University, another pause before the testing ground of the pro game. But Royal Lytham confirmed to him that it was time to move.

"I got hot in the second round, made seven birdies and tied the low amateur score. It pushed me toward turning pro versus going back to college. I was still kind of iffy about whether I should turn pro or not but I got the confidence here to believe that I could do it at a high level. I could shoot low scores while playing against the top players on a very difficult track."

The more Woods talked the less he seemed besieged. The mention of Mandela sent him back to another point of inspiration. "It was incredible meeting him for the first time in '98. I got invited to his home. They said to my dad and me, OK just go into the living room. And we go in there and I say, 'Hey, Pops, do you feel that? It feels different in here.' We're just standing there looking at some things on the wall -- and over in the corner was President Mandela.

"He was just meditating in the corner and it was just a different feeling in the room. He has such a presence and aura about him, unlike anyone I have ever met."

However, it is when he talks of golf that you have the best sense of a man who may have come to terms with the pressure that so many believed would wear him down -- and make his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' mark of 18 majors increasingly forlorn.

Woods figures if he is healthy, he can win.

"This is my third time here," he said, "I liked it as an amateur and in the other two years that I played it wasn't like this. This is different. The rough is lush. The fairways are softer. The ball is not chasing as much. It's a slower golf course but nonetheless it has some mounding on it. The bunkers are penal.

"It will be interesting to see which way the wind comes out of because it changes the whole golf course. Two out of three days this week I've played in two different winds. One day on seven I hit driver and 7-iron and the next day I hit driver, 3-wood and wedge. So, sure, it's going to be very interesting to see how it turns out."

He likes the fact this is a course which presents so many different angles. "It tests your ability to hit the ball proper distances," Woods said. He makes it sound less an ordeal, more the comfort of returning to something he knew so well.

The crisis may not over be over but, like the great course, it has changed. It is something a once sublime golfer might just be able to manage.

James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK


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