Tuesday 22 January 2019

Woods' pain in the neck fails to halt impressive progress

Woods: Even par opening round. Photo: PA
Woods: Even par opening round. Photo: PA

Oliver Brown

Whisper it softly, but Tiger Woods is a delicate flower in his dotage. Ten years ago, he won a US Open at Torrey Pines on one leg. And yet here, on a balmy day, he needed to patch himself up with tape after waking with stiffness in his neck.

While Woods might look in enviable condition for a 42-year-old, he can't escape reminders from his body that he is no longer the indestructible titan of his youth.

Three years have passed since Woods last graced an Open and few present could dispute that it was worth the wait.

To understand why a man who has not won a major for a decade still bestrides his sport, why a golfer ranked 71st in the world more than doubles the TV ratings of almost every event he enters, one had simply to be near Carnoustie's first tee at 3.21pm. It was a reception befitting a Thracian gladiator.

Not that Woods affected to care too much. He is concerned less with the circus that his appearance stirs up than with the notion that he might still have it in him to seize the 15th major that would revive his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's 18.

First things first, however. Woods has been so stricken with injury since his last Open, at St Andrews in 2015, battling through back problems that left him unable to play with his children without pain, that his very presence on this stage was a joy.

A first round of 71, with a blemish-free outward half and an impressive patch-up job coming home, was as promising a return as anyone could realistically have hoped.

The only worry was his neck. After an uncomfortable night's rest, Woods was sporting two strips of black kinesiology tape, but insisted after his round that he had no cause for any greater concern. "It was a hell of a lot better than my back hurting," he smiled. "I've been taped up, bandaged up. It's just that you were able to see this one. It's no big deal. Just gotta play."

And play he did, conspicuously well at times. Indeed, it was a novel experience to watch him make such an auspicious start.

Not since the 2012 Open at Royal Lytham had Woods begun a major campaign with a birdie, but he put paid to that record with a nerveless opening, arrowing his approach to 10 feet and taking care of the rest. A happy portent? It looked that way as he picked up another stroke at the fourth, though his demeanour remained rigidly impassive.

With the 12th green shimmering in the evening sun, and the train from Aberdeen rattling in the background, Woods did not let his concentration waver. Faced with a 35-footer for birdie that moved sharply left to right, he made a perfect read, a pure stroke, and finally, a modest fist-pump as the ball dived into the cup.

Where others were stumbling in the gusts that gathered over the back nine, Woods was making hay.

In approach, this was Hoylake 2006 revisited. Just as Woods navigated his way around a scorched Royal Liverpool with scrupulous restraint, he seldom had recourse at a parched Carnoustie for anything more potent than his two-iron hybrid. Largely, the ruse worked a treat, as he split almost every fairway.

It was just a pity the same could not be said of his putter. Despite his resurgence of late, Woods remains susceptible to the types of miscues inside six feet that were unconscionable at his pomp. So it proved at the 14th, where gimme range putt lipped out on its last roll.

Woods seemed knocked by it even as he took on the par-five 15th, a wide enough hole for most players in this field to feel comfortable bombing their drivers.

After another cautious tee-shot, eclipsed in distance by playing partners Russell Knox and Hideki Matsuyama, he fanned a steepling iron to the right, the ball splatting into the greenside bunker with a fried-egg lie. To his credit, he dug it out with one mighty heave, clearing the lip by inches and channelling all his fabled powers of recovery to escape with par.

It was no disgrace that Woods was wobbling with Carnoustie's closing three holes present as gruelling an examination as any on the major roster and Woods emerged without any further damage. It had been a constrained, unflashy performance, but no less impressive for that.

© Daily Telegraph, London


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