ROYAL PORTRUSH – In his prime, Tiger Woods was as sharp as a tack on the course and stiff as old boots in the media centre. These days, it is almost the polar opposite.
Moving gingerly to take his place on the podium for his press conference at the 148th Open yesterday, once he started speaking, he was funny, candid and insightful.
To all the concerned analysts out there wondering why he has only played 10 competitive rounds since winning the Masters, he had a blunt response: if he played much more, it would cut short his stirring comeback. He also told a great story about being snubbed by the current majors hotshot, Brooks Koepka.
“Brooksie, as you all know, he’s been on this great run in the majors,” Woods began. “To be so solid, so consistent, to win or be in contention in each and every one. So, I texted him and said, ‘Hey dude, do you mind if I tag along and play a practice round?’ I’ve heard nothing.”
Woods restricted himself to six holes of practice yesterday and will take the chance for a bit of sightseeing today and enjoy this wondrous coastline, with its Game of Thrones backdrop and the spectacular Giant’s Causeway.
No doubt the decision of this particular sporting giant to restrict himself to a practice range session on the final day of rehearsals will provoke more head-scratching but the 43-year-old laid out his circumstances and pleaded for understanding.
“The fact is, I played too much last year, trying to get into certain events and get my world ranking to a point where I’d be in all the big events,” he explained. “The result is I got to the Ryder Cup and my body was so beat up. I was worn out and I couldn’t contribute.
“This year, I’ve made a conscious effort to cut back on my schedule to make sure that I don’t play too much. I want to play out 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 working out how much I can play, and how much I can do at home to get ready. The tricky part is determining how much tournament play I need to get the feel for the shots and understanding where my body is.”
Woods conceded he might not have played enough with just three events in three months.
“My game is not quite as sharp as I’d like,” he said. “My touch around the greens is right where I need to have it, but I still need to shape the ball a little better.
“I had a good range session today and I need another tomorrow. Hopefully that will be enough to be ready.”
Asked for his first impressions of Royal Portrush, Tiger’s effusive words must have been manna from heaven for the local tourist board.
“It is a wonderful course and it is amazing that the Open hasn’t been here in such a long time,” he said. “It can play so many different ways. I just love courses where you can play it one day and see some bunkers and wonder why they’re there. And then you go out the next day, with the wind switching, and suddenly they’re in play.
“The difference here compared to others on the rota is that the ball repels off the greens a lot. You’re going to have a lot of bump-and-runs, or slow putts up the hills. But it’s an unbelievable place.”
Asked whether there was anything outside the norm that he was dealing with physically, Woods started smiling. “Not outside the norm, no,” he said.
It is on days like this that you get a better appreciation of how remarkable it is that he is able to play at this level again — and what it means to him to keep playing.
It was at the Open 12 months ago that Woods got the scent of major golf on Sunday in his nostrils once more. He was leading with nine holes to go and while it did not work out at Carnoustie, it led to a runner’s-up showing at the US PGA, and paved the way for that astonishing day at Augusta that stunned the sporting world.
What has happened since has been a man coming to terms with the magnitude of that achievement — and the scale of what it would take to reach the mountain top again given the brittleness of a fused body barely fit enough for base camp.
Sir Nick Faldo used to talk about how draining winning majors was on the life battery. The predominant question on the eve of the Open must be: how much does Tiger have left in the tank?