Sunday 17 December 2017

Tiger hasn't lost the ability to draw the crowds

St Andrews is the perfect course for Woods to regain former glories

The Open represents a chance for Tiger Woods to return to glory
The Open represents a chance for Tiger Woods to return to glory

Ewan Murray

The swelling crowd rendered it perfectly obvious to whom Old Course attention was being directed. Tiger Woods may be the 226th-ranked golfer in the world, he may not have lifted the Claret Jug for nine years and he may be subject to the constant writing-off of his career but his appeal remains undiminished. There is a fascination around all things Woods which defies his fall from golfing grace. It highlights why this will be a poorer sport when he eventually calls time.

The scene here yesterday morning was unfamiliar. At his dominant peak Woods would never have spent time in a gym discussing fitness regimes and half an hour on a driving range with highly rated teenage amateurs days before a major championship, let alone take to the course with them.

He did all three, chatting and laughing with the group of Ben Kinsley, Inci Mehmet, Lauren Whyte, Matthew McCulloch and Conor Purcell - all aged between 17 and 19 - before playing the Open venue's 16th, 17th and 18th holes alongside them.

Woods even tended the flagstick on more than one occasion. It is unclear whether or not he realised that Kinsley is the great, great grandson of Willie Auchterlonie, who won the Open Championship as a 21-year-old in 1893.

Whispers in the wind in such a tight-knit golfing community will carry a long way. Whereas only half a dozen members of the public were unwittingly on hand to see the 14-times major winner take to the St Andrews practice range, around 300 followed him by the time he reached the 18th hole. With no ticketing rules in place so early in Open proceedings, that was a free-for-all bonus.

The screaming Nike branding and vast ranks of hangers-on illustrated why Woods was the marquee figure in this two-hour scene. Still, it was unusual territory in such a public setting. Having completed golfing matters, Woods even gave his latest anodyne interview - this time to the BBC - on the Old Course itself within yards of eager-eyed, snap-happy tourists. "This is my favourite course on earth," he said. "I love it. And just to return here with all the memories I have, it never gets old. I love coming back. All the memories come rushing back."

The trouble is, memories are all Woods has and, in a major championship context, they are edging further and further away. That is what makes the coming days so significant for the 39-year-old; he won the 2000 and 2005 St Andrews' Opens by eight and five shots respectively.

If he cannot summon the game to compete in this event, on this course, when in apparently fine fettle, any kickstart to his career will be even harder to foresee than is already the case. If we are to take Woods at his word, this Open represents his finest hope in some time of high-level glory.

Woods repeated his comments from the culmination of the Greenbrier Classic by insisting that his ball-striking during that event's final round was the best for two years. He again talked of the difficulties of golfing commitment while being a father with two children and, again typically, said he can win here. And with that he was off, to another range clinic, this time with youngsters from the St Andrews Links before returning to Nike business.

Before 4pm Woods was literally stopping traffic because of the gathered audience on Golf Place, 100 yards from the 1st tee of the Old Course. There Woods officially opened a newly created corporate venue on behalf of the sports company.

Woods' Open preparations will take on a more serious approach from today. Business as usual would mean nine holes a day for Woods between now and the 144th Open starting. The course is considerably greener than is common for this time of year, which may afford the championship a different dynamic from normal.

None of Woods' peers is willing to write him off. "It is much easier to get back to the level of play he has achieved in the past than it is to do it for the first time," said Phil Mickelson. "The fact that he has been there and done it, knows what it feels like and is healthy is the important thing. When he is healthy he is always a force. I don't know when he'll get back to the level he'd like. I just know he will get there."

That confidence has not exactly been endorsed by hard evidence. And yet, as an otherwise unremarkable July day on the Fife coast proved, Woods remains a golfing draw like no other.


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