Saturday 29 April 2017

Woods may not soar again but his return still beguiles us

Tiger continues to grab limelight despite the self-inflicted physical and mental injuries

Tiger Woods walks off the 18th green during the final round at the Hero World Challenge golf tournament last Sunday, in the Bahamas. Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP
Tiger Woods walks off the 18th green during the final round at the Hero World Challenge golf tournament last Sunday, in the Bahamas. Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP

Germot Gilleece

It has taken only 72 largely moderate holes for Tiger-mania to grip the golfing world once more. Spurred by television, a seemingly desperate need to restore the icon to former prominence is reflected in advance betting for the US Masters next April.

Having been 3/1, the hottest favourite in recent memory for a title which eluded him in Millennium year, he is now quoted at 20/1 to take this coveted prize for a fifth time. Which are the same odds as recent Green Jackets Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, and shorter than reigning Open champion Henrik Stenson (25/1). And that from a player ranked 650th in the world.

There was another side, however, to the hero's return in his own event in the Bahamas last weekend. Fearing that people were being over-critical of El Tigre's 15th-place finish in a field of 17, David Feherty was moved to remark: "He gets judged by his own standards, which is a bit unreasonable at this point." Indeed.

In the course of various interviews throughout the tournament, Woods talked confidently of eventually beating the target of 18 Major titles set by Jack Nicklaus - "otherwise I wouldn't be here". I found listening to him rather pointless, however, in that he has never revealed anything close to his innermost thoughts, whatever the circumstances.

Which meant that a few weeks short of his 41st birthday, there was never a chance we would get even a glimpse into the feelings of profound regret he must be enduring at having scuppered a great career through his off-course behaviour. Though Woods' difficulties were undoubtedly exacerbated by injury, Ben Hogan overcame far more serious problems after a near-fatal car crash in February 1949. I've no doubt that the most devastating damage to Woods has been mental.

So from a situation where he had 14 Major titles at 32, we now have him with the same total eight years on. And given his supreme talent, it's not an issue that he's attempting to go where no-one has gone before; it's the fact that he has actually inflicted such circumstances on himself.

When, as an amateur, he played a practice round at Augusta National with Nick Faldo prior to the 1996 Masters, the 20-year-old Woods remarked bemusedly: "He didn't say a word to me for the entire 18 holes." But Faldo had plenty to say little more than a year later.

"Right now, Tiger has the game throttled," he said after the youngster's astonishing 12-stroke Masters triumph. "He's playing a different course to the rest of us. He's unbeatable. Nothing like it has happened since Nicklaus came on the scene." And on it went until his 14th Major in the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines.

We may reasonably ask ourselves why Woods, with more money than he'll ever need, is now subjecting himself to merciless public scrutiny, especially knowing that many observers will be looking for him to fail. The answer lies in the instincts which drove him to remarkable heights in the first place.

Golf writing recently lost one of its finest exponents with the passing of Scotland's Raymond Jacobs, who offered, in the Glasgow Herald, a beautiful explanation of the phenomenon that we call greatness in the wake of Woods' first Open triumph at St Andrews in Millennium year.

From a piece which analysed what made Frank Sinatra the compelling singer he was, Jacobs quoted: "One felt that his performance was just a necessary part of his day. It is necessary for Sinatra to sing. Many of the most gifted performers have this air of privacy. They do not come on stage to please us or to prove anything. They come on stage because it is where they live more abundantly. In the audience, we feel as if we are watching an extraordinary animal in its natural habitat."

That is why Woods played tournament golf and that is why he cannot resist returning to the competitive arena.

Mind you, he hasn't been entirely absent for the last 16 months. His spirit was very much present last February on the eve of the Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, where he famously holed-in-one 19 years previously on the 163-yard 16th.

This time around, 20,000 rowdy fans showered the green with beer-cups when a robot named after him repeated the feat, albeit at the fifth attempt. The automaton, used to develop golf swing technology, is named LDRIC (as in Woods' first name Eldrick), an acronym for Launch Directional Robot Intelligent Circuitry.

Which brings me neatly to events at Woodbrook GC, where, following a decision to name each of the 18 holes, the short 17th is now known as 'Hedley's Drop'. Going through the list, 'Himself's Favourite' for the 15th is self-explanatory, and 'Bing's Balcony' (16th) obviously commemorates Bing Crosby's appearance there both as player and singer in 1961. But Hedley's Drop?

It has arisen through the friendship of veteran Leeds professional Hedley Muscroft with Portmarnock's Joe King, and his daughter Carolyn McDonnell, a member of Woodbrook. When Muscroft told Carolyn about his experience on the 17th, the club considered it well worth commemorating.

In setting up the course for the 1972 Carrolls International, won by Christy O'Connor, the sponsors adorned each flagstick with a little square box, open at the top and just beneath the flag. By making each hole readily identifiable for spectators, it was also a neat advertising device. And the 17th was the focus of considerable attention in view of a prize of £200 on offer for a hole-in-one.

Muscroft took up the story, saying: "In the second round, as I recall it, I hit an eight-iron on the 17th into a strong breeze coming down the railway line. The ball soared high over the flagstick but, on arriving at the green, there was only one ball visible and that was the ball of my playing partner."

He went on: "A few guys at the back of the green claimed they heard a ball hit the flagstick, but didn't see where it went. We then looked all around the greenside bunkers - nothing. Then my caddie, Jock Heath, called out, 'Come and look at this, Hed'.

"There was my ball, stuck in the box. Which caused a small problem. I obviously had a free drop, but could it have been for a hole-in-one and £200?"

When tournament director Arthur Crawley Bouvey was called, he agreed that Muscroft had a free drop. And if the dropped ball should finish in the hole, he was entitled to the money.

Muscroft added: "It would have been easier with the drop we have today, but in those days, the drop was over your shoulder. So there I was bending backwards into a limbo position to get the ball into the hole. Alas, Crawley Bouvey insisted I stand upright throughout the procedure, and I failed miserably."

Among other things, Muscroft had the distinction of giving John Giles golf lessons when the Dubliner played for Leeds United, and was also notorious as a hustler - especially in money matches partnering fellow Yorkshireman Lionel Platts.

On hearing that Woodbrook had decided to name a hole after him, he proceeded to send the club a gift of a charming glass-headed putter in a case which also contained the foregoing story on his headed notepaper. "I'm delighted Woodbrook have chosen to honour me in this way, recalling my exploits of yesteryear," he concluded.

When the Irish Open was revived at Woodbrook under the Carrolls banner in 1975, Muscroft missed the 54-hole cut, but there were two orthodox holes-in-one on the 17th. Which meant £500 each for Scotland's John McTear and Christy Snr from the £1,000 prize.

Meanwhile, the only incident I have unearthed in tournament golf here to compare with Muscroft's experience occurred in the 1936 Irish Open at Royal Dublin. That was when South Africa's Bobby Locke, as an 18-year-old amateur, was convinced he had scored a hole-in-one on the 12th, only to discover that the ball had become lodged, miraculously, in the fabric on the flagstick.

Just like Muscroft, he had to settle for a two.

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