The last time the Open went to a venue freshly restored to the rota, Tiger Woods was almost the first through the front door. The year was 2006, and around the clubhouse at Royal Liverpool, the army of workers stopped applying the finishing touches and looked on astonished as the best golfer in the world walked among them.
‘Where’s the first tee, bud?’ he asked this reporter. After striking three wood blows into fairway bunkers at the first two holes, Woods began the meticulous preparation that would see him fashion a strategy where he used just one driver in 72 holes, on his way to claiming the Claret Jug by two strokes.
What a vivid contrast to this time. Woods will get his first look at Royal Portrush this afternoon at the end of a bizarre stretch that will see him go into the last major of the season clearly undercooked, having played just 10 competitive rounds since winning the first in such memorable fashion at Augusta back in April. By way of comparison, this year’s major man Brooks Koepka has completed 28 rounds during the same sequence.
Not surprisingly, it has set tongues wagging, with former US Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, who will be at the Open as an analyst for American network NBC, wondering if Woods is still coming to terms with the size of his achievement at the Masters, where he claimed his first major win for 11 years — his 15th in all.
‘For me, the warning sign for Tiger fans is winning a green jacket could have been the peak moment for Tiger,’ he said. ‘The next win for him, it’s going to be a lot harder than people think because there’s a lot on the line, following the mountain top experience of achieving that Masters victory.’
Two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington says he can’t understand how anyone serious about winning the Open isn’t playing competitive golf in the build-up. Yet, following the US Open at Pebble Beach last month, Woods flew directly to Thailand for a fortnight’s vacation, and has spent the last week at home in Florida.
Is there something we’re not being told, health-wise? Is this the new normal for a man whose body has soaked up such punishment and who was wrapped in kinesiology tape during his last outing at Pebble? His lack of competitive preparation is all the more open to question given this major, after the Masters, is perhaps his best chance of adding to his tally. ‘I think Portrush is perfect for that stinger shot off the tee that he has used so effectively over the years at the Open,’ says local oracle Darren Clarke.
We saw it last year at Carnoustie, where Woods’s comeback moved up a level as he tasted the heat of battle on Sunday afternoon again to prepare the way for his Masters win. Woods’s love of links golf was apparent during his early years as a pro, when he would come over well before the Open in either England and Scotland and play some of the great seaside courses in Ireland.
Now, when the Open finally returns to the Emerald Isle for the first time in 68 years, it’s curious that he’s leaving it so late by comparison to have his first look of the course.
All we’ve heard by way of preparation is a stunt video he sent to his sponsor Nike referring to the fact he’s been getting up at 1am to prepare for the jetlag. Isn’t this the man who used to laugh at the idea of jetlag?
‘I’m not sure it’s entirely sane to prepare by doing that,’ said his good friend Justin Thomas, at the Scottish Open last week. ‘Surely you just come over a couple of days early?’
Instead, it was Koepka who was here early, having a pint of Guinness or two in the clubhouse to relax on Friday night, before sampling the course for the first time yesterday in the company of his caddie and Portrush native Ricky Elliott, a former Ulster Boys’ Champion.
If you want to know how good the knowledge is that Elliott will pass on to the man who has gone 1-2-1-2 in the last four majors, consider the view of another man who grew up here. ‘Ricky was always the golfer we looked up to at that stage,’ says Graeme McDowell.
No wonder Koepka will start as favourite to continue his remarkable run in the four events that matter most.
Like many Open venues, Portrush, however, is more a course for strategists than bombers. Don’t be surprised if we see a similar Open to last year, with the likes of defending champion Francesco Molinari and joint runners-up Justin Rose, Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele in the mix once more.Daily Mail