Wednesday 24 January 2018

Grand master still playing different game to the rest

The 'old' Tiger is long gone but the new one remains a force to be reckoned with, says John O'Brien

THEY said he had lost it. The thing that had underlined his greatness, that had separated him from an increasingly youthful, ever-hungry chasing pack. For want of a better word they called it his aura. "It's gone," BBC commentator Peter Alliss proclaimed in April. "People used to say, 'Christ I'm playing Tiger Woods'. Now they say, 'Get out of the way Tiger'." Nick Faldo said much the same thing at the back end of last year

Well, guess what? Tiger Woods hasn't lost his aura. Or if he had, he has rediscovered and re-honed it, if not to perfection then as close as a 36-year-old with a history of chronic knee trouble and a few off-course indiscretions can get. He might not yet win the 141st Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Anne's. Those who stand in his way might not fear him as they once did. But the aura? It lives. That much is certain.

It is late on Friday evening. A beautiful serene twilight stretches out over the Lancashire coastline. Thirty minutes have passed since that outrageous bunker shot on 18 pushed Woods to within mugging distance of the leaders and he's still on the practice range, still hugging the left-hand corner where the equipment trucks pay heaviest for rental space, bashing drive after drive into a scarlet sky, even though the big stick has mostly remained dormant in its fluffy tiger cover all week.

The true force of his magnetic appeal is evident here. Kids from every race, every corner of the globe, line the barriers, imploring Woods for a keepsake -- a ball, a glove, a tee, anything -- pleas he has never, nor will ever, oblige. There are queues for the stand adjacent to the range only when he is striking golf balls. The young Japanese golfer Yoshinori Fujimoto stops and watches Woods for 10 minutes. What other golfer would the 22-year-old do that for?

They say tentatively that Tiger is different now. A more relaxed figure these days. The old Woods that marched around these links courses as if they were his personal domain, a train of burly security men around him, is a fading memory. He flashes the odd smile here and there, even when he isn't holing out from deep greenside bunkers. Mellowing with age? Well, you mightn't go that far perhaps.

For sure, though, the fear factor is less than it was. Later on Friday Joe LaCava, Tiger's latest bagman, steps towards the footbridge leading to the clubhouse and agrees to share a few thoughts. He talks about Tiger's game plan -- driver staying rooted to the bag -- and sticking to it. About staying clear of Lytham's feared bunkers, about the things that relentlessly drive his master. "Always looking for perfection."

LaCava hasn't much to offer really. He speaks for just 56 seconds but, then, that's nearly a minute longer than his predecessors Steve Williams, Tiger's caddie-cum-bouncer, or Fluff Cowan were ever willing, or permitted, to give to humble reporters. As charm offensives go, taking the muzzle off your caddie is barely only scraping par territory. But it's something at least, a small injection of normality into a strange, closeted world.

What LaCava speaks about, fundamentally, is a game Tiger is playing that bears no relation to the one being played by the 155 others who teed up on Thursday. Not necessarily better, perhaps, and maybe not even smarter. Just vastly different. Five-irons off the tee on 600-yard par-fives. The shortest driving iron he used, LaCava told us, was a six-iron on the 336-yard 16th. What other golfer would ever dream up such shots?

With any other golfer, this could be construed as boring. Graeme McDowell spoke on Thursday about his fondness for playing chess as a kid, but it is only Woods who is playing like a grand master on the Royal Lytham links, angling his ball around the course like he might move a knight or a bishop around a chequered board. It's exciting to watch because of who he is and the fascination of discovering whether he can pull it off, add another Major to his total, creep one closer to Jack.

There's nothing odd about what he is trying to do, of course. When he won at Hoylake in 2006, Woods famously used his driver only once over four rounds, but that year the course was baked dry by a hot sun and the ball travelled miles on firm, bouncy fairways. The softer conditions this week made aggressive tactics a more tempting option but Woods had an alternative game plan and, resolutely, has maintained it.

You think of the kid who first stunned the world in 1997 with his blisteringly long drives and audacious irons and wonder at the maturity and patience required to play such a relentlessly grinding game. Take the sixth hole yesterday. A long-iron to the first cut of rough that left him 232 yards to a pin cut back left with the ball below his feet. He struck his approach to 40 feet and then, improbably, sank the putt.

Not that Woods' strategy was beyond question. Making sure to avoid the deep fairway bunkers made sense, of course, but the price for that was having to play longer approach shots to hard-to-get-at pins. Occasionally, he paid a heavy price such as on the long 16th when he found the semi-rough and, with over 230 yards left, he came up short and conceded a shot to the leader, Adam Scott, at a critical time.

There were times you wondered at the wisdom of such an extremely conservative approach, when you wanted to tap Tiger on the back and urge him to let it rip a little. After his unlikely birdie on six, he whipped out the driver on the par-five fifth for the first time this week, smoked two shots to the back of the green and walked off with an easy birdie. On Friday he'd gone with a five-iron off the tee on the same hole and left with bogey. Go figure.

But then maybe Woods knows something we don't. He's the one with 14 Majors to his name, after all, and ravenously hungry to nail his first since June 2008. The more he returns to form and fitness, the more inevitable it seems. As if the past four years with all those varied and first-time winners was nothing but an exciting interlude: like that glorious decade of hurling in the 1990s before the big guns struck back to reassert their dominion.

Woods was far from flawless yesterday. He had started the day four behind his fellow American, Brandt Snedeker, and ended it five behind Scott and having seen the admirably gritty McDowell sneak up ahead of him. So not even among the final pairing today, alongside Scott and his former caddie, Williams, a match-up you imagine Woods would have savoured.

No matter. He is there nonetheless, still stalking, still projecting his aura around him. Doing things his own way. And when Tiger is playing a different game to everyone else, that's usually the cue for the golfing world to sit up and pay attention.

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