IIt’s been seven years since Tiger Woods was last in St. Andrews for The Open, and he’s done a lot of living in them. He’s had countless rounds of surgery, a handful of different relationships, an arrest, spent months out of the sport, made his comeback win at Augusta National, then went through that car crash and subsequent rehab. Back in 2015 Woods was in his wilderness years, and he ended up missing the cut here. “Retirement?” he said back then. “I’m a long way from that.” He looked and sounded a little different this time. He’s far enough along now to know this might be the last time he plays in a major here.
It could be another six or seven years again before the Old Course comes back around on the Open rota. “If it is that long, I don’t know whether I will be able to physically compete at this level by then. It’s also one of the reasons why I wanted to play in this championship. I don’t know what my career is going to be like. I know I’m not going to play a full schedule ever again. My body just won’t allow me to do that. So I don’t know how many Open championships I have left at St Andrews.” It wasn’t so long ago that he wasn’t even sure whether he’d played his last already.
After the crash, Woods didn’t know if he would even be able to “play a little hit-and-giggle golf with my son”. Even he was surprised by how well his recovery went. The thought of playing here is what got him through it. “Once I realized that I could possibly play at a high level, my focus was to get back here at St. Andrews to play in this championship. I just didn’t want to miss this Open here at the home of golf.” The place matters to him. He keeps a photo in his office of his first practice round here, when he played as an amateur in 1995. It shows him posing on the Swilcan Bridge.
“This has meant so much to me. This is where I completed the career grand slam. So it meant a lot.” He seems to feel the same way about the place that every other golf nut does, the only difference is he’s on the other side of the ropes.
There’s a childish glee in the way he speaks about the Old Course. He grinned when he talked about the challenge of playing into the winds, and the wicked slopes of the greens, and then again when he spoke about what a privilege it was to play practice rounds with Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus. Woods even seemed genuinely awestruck that he found himself sharing a putting green with Bob Charles, who won The Open in 1963. “I just saw him out there hitting on 18. Just to be able to see that in person, live, God, it was just so special.”
Back in 2015 Woods sounded like a man who was fighting against time. Now he seems at peace with his passing. He’s clearly been doing a lot of thinking about the history of the sport, and his place in it. Coming here will do that to you.
“The history of the game is certainly something that I’ve taken to heart. I think it’s a very important part of understanding the development of our game, where we’ve come from, especially for me, for a person who’s had to struggle at times for admittance into clubhouses or onto golf courses. So I understand it from a different historical side too. But you have to appreciate everything about this game, how it’s developed, and the people who have paved the way to allow us to play in these events, who created the energy behind it.”
There’s a bigger point here, of course, about the upstart LIV tour and the men who have signed up to play on it. All this talk about history was for their benefit too. He wanted to remind them what really matters. “It is a possibility that some players will never, ever get a chance to play in a major championship, never get a chance to experience this right here, or to walk down the fairways at Augusta National. That, to me, I just don’t understand.”
He will get to walk the championship course here at least twice more himself. Or four, if he gets his way, since he’s clearly counting on being in contention come Sunday. “On links golf courses like this, you can continue into your 50s.” He mentioned Tom Watson’s second place finish at Turnberry in 2009. Watson was 59 at the time. “So it can be done. It just takes a lot of knowledge and understanding of how to play this type of golf. And with the fairways being fast and firm, it allows players who are older to run the ball out there and have a chance.”
There have been a few famous farewells here over the years, Woods, who was playing here when both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus finished, has seen a few himself. From the way Woods was talking you wonder if there might be one more later this week, and win or lose he’ll have one more famous photo of him on Swilcan Bridge to go alongside the other on his desk.