Tears and fears on the recovery road for Tiger Woods
The British Open will be a searching test of Tiger's back injury
Remembering how he greeted a highly emotional triumph in 2006 with free-flowing tears for the loss of his beloved father just 10 weeks previously, Tiger Woods will be wondering what lies in store for him on a return to Hoylake for the 143rd Open Championship. His primary concern on this occasion must be physical, dominated by back surgery undergone last March.
Hoylake '06 marked an 11th Major triumph for Woods. And given his dominance back then, it is hard to imagine only three further successes having come his way since at the highest level. The reasons, however, are to be found in truly turbulent happenings, largely off the golf course.
Now, at 38, comes a test that may prove to be the most searching in the remainder of his career. And a certain spice is added by the defending champion being Phil Mickelson, who was at one time visibly intimidated by Woods' dominance before belatedly finding the success to match his rich talents.
With a strong representation of seven before the field is finalised today, an Irish success this week would be hugely appealing, if only for historical reasons. Hoylake is the venue where this country first made its mark on The Open in 1913, when Dollymount's Michael Moran tied third with the great Harry Vardon behind the triumphant JH Taylor. Then, of course, there was Fred Daly's marvellous Open triumph there in 1947.
But there's a problem. Alongside Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Shane Lowry, Michael Hoey and the splendid amateur, Paul Dunne, Graeme McDowell is clearly the form player after last week's victory in the French Open.
McDowell's undoubted gifts, however, do not include predictability. From his debut victory as a professional in only his fourth European Tour appearance in 2002, his 13 international wins, including the 2010 US Open, generally came when least expected. Indeed victory at Harbour Town last year in the wake of a missed cut at Augusta National was a typical case in point.
Nor does being the only Irish player to survive into the weekend in 2006 make him a Hoylake specialist. On that occasion, he was ultimately forced to settle for a share of 61st place behind Woods.
Since the decline of Harrington, McIlroy is the only Irish challenger with the depth of talent to win effectively on demand. And we must hope he finds the right mood this week to drive him towards a third triumph in three different Majors.
The Royal Liverpool links at Hoylake, which was the first course in north-west England to play host to The Open, was once written of by the legendary Bernard Darwin as "blown upon by mighty winds; breeder of mighty champions". And a roll of honour, which includes Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Daly, Peter Thomson, Roberto de Vicenzo and Woods, would tend to confirm that view.
Tears associated with South American involvement in the current World Cup bring to mind the emotion of Argentina's De Vicenzo in the climactic moments of his 1967 Hoylake success, as recounted by his caddie, Willie Aitchison. According to the veteran Scottish bagman, it started after his man had parred the 17th.
"Trying desperately to control himself, Roberto succeeded in hitting a fine three-wood down the 18th fairway," recalled Aitchison. "But by the time he got to his ball, his face was covered with tears. 'Willie,' he said, 'I can't see the green. Give me a club that will get me there for two putts'. I handed him an eight-iron and when he hit it, we walked the rest of the way to the green with everybody in the stands rising to acclaim the new champion. 'Viva Roberto!' they kept calling. 'Viva Roberto'. I later learned that Henry Cotton had been behind this salute.
"With a closing 70, he finished two strokes clear of Nicklaus and by that stage, there wasn't a dry eye to be seen. For Roberto and me, there would never be another moment quite like it." Aitchison paused. "I last saw him at St Andrews quite a few years later and do you know, he barely recognised me. I was disgusted." Then he laughed heartily.
Though the '06 staging was considered a resounding success, the course has undergone quite a few changes to further test the game's aristocrats, including an additional 54 yards which brings its overall length to 7,312 yards for the par of 72. Then there is the reduction in the number of bunkers to 82, though five holes have new swales around the greens to punish errant shots with more varied hazards. Broken ground has also been created in the rough on a number of holes to toughen recovery shots.
As in the '06 Open, play will commence on the members' 17th hole and finish on the 16th. This delivers a formidable 3-5-4-5 finishing stretch measuring a total of 1,747 yards, just a little short of a mile. Meanwhile, the par-four first hole has been reshaped and re-bunkered and the green has tricky run-off areas on either side. All of which has prompted R&A chief executive, Peter Dawson, to describe it as "the hardest opening hole on the Open rota".
Assuming no dramatic change in the weather when play begins on Thursday, it will not be nearly as fiery and fast as is was eight years ago when the parched surfaces caused Woods to abandon his frequently troublesome driver and negotiate the challenge with irons off the tee.
All of which brought a glowing tribute from Christy O'Connor Snr, who was noted for his superb iron play. "The only way you could have made an even fight of it," remarked Himself, "was to have Tiger play on a tar road while the rest of them were on grass. His shot-making was so magnificent that you feel he might never be beaten if he stuck to his irons all the time."
Woods learned well, as all players have to if they are to come to terms with the challenge of links terrain. Keenly aware of this as an aspiring world number one, Jack Nicklaus studied Joe Carr at amateur level and during practice rounds when he graduated to professional ranks.
"I know I learned a lot from watching Joe play links golf," he said. "I saw him play an awful lot of two, three or four irons off the tee and I came to realise that this was a pretty good way to play those courses. It was the only way you could be certain of avoiding the bunkers."
Against this background, it is baffling that it took Mickelson two decades to fully come to terms with the challenge, after making his Open debut as an amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1991, prior to thrilling eager crowds at Portmarnock in the Walker Cup six weeks later.
"It was a much longer process than I ever imagined to get my game to accommodate links golf," he admitted last week. "Because I had been brought up to fly the ball through the air, I just got more upset with the crazy bounces and the cross-winds. But once I realised the idea was to get the ball on the ground and let it affect the ball more than the air and the wind, it became more manageable."
Meanwhile, seemingly satisfied with his recovery from microdiscectomy surgery on his back, Woods made an inauspicious comeback by missing the cut recently in the Quicken Loans National at Congressional. This has been his only competitive outing prior to Hoylake yet he remains typically upbeat about his physical well-being.
"The back is in the past," he said in the wake of Congressional. "I had no setbacks, no pain. I'm sore in other parts of my body, and that's just from . . . I hadn't exploded like that in a while. So certain parts of my body are feeling it, but definitely not my back.
"I'm very excited about going back to Hoylake - to play that golf course." And when informed it was now more lush than he would have remembered it, he remarked: "When we played it [in 2006], it was hard and fast and it was brown. So we'll see what happens when we get there."
Doubts about his prospects have already been expressed by his former coach Hank Haney. "I know people were excited to hear that he [Woods] was back hitting balls, but hitting balls isn't the same as practising," Haney told Golf Digest. "You have to get your swing going and your endurance back first. You don't just walk out there and start pounding balls for four hours. It's not that easy."
Haney went on to point out that during his time with Woods, he devised a recovery schedule that took a month to complete, with the level of difficulty and stress being steadily increased until Woods was ready to hit every shot. He also noted that when at the height of his powers, Woods would practise for about eight hours every day to stay in peak form.
Though it would be fanciful to imagine the erstwhile great one regaining his former dominance in the game, further Major victories are most definitely not beyond him, health-permitting. In this context, next weekend at Hoylake could decide the shape of tournament golf worldwide, for the remainder of the decade.
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