ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – In the land of ancient links and narrow roads, this particular take probably isn’t going to age well, but history demands a reckoning.
To be clear, Tiger Woods isn’t going to show up on many betting sheets, and the idea that he could somehow, somehow emerge as the Champion Golfer of the Year on Sunday at St. Andrews, less than two years removed from a horrific car crash, is foolish pandering.
But he could contend. That’s it could with a hook.
Anyone who watched him limp his way to a third-round 79 and then out of Tulsa at the PGA Championship in May would attest to the notion that this version of Tiger Woods is well short of 100 percent. But as outlandish as a fourth Open Championship sounds for a rebuilt 46-year-old who is fresh off the IR, there’s no ignoring the logic that likely drove Tiger to push through the pain and prepare for the 150Th Open.
This week’s championship is historic – they were playing golf on the Old Course back when they thought the world was flat – and after countless surgeries and endless brushes with his competitive mortality, Tiger has come to appreciate the nostalgia of it all.
But this goes well beyond a photo op on the Swilcan Bridge. The second week of July was circled on Tiger’s calendar because he knew that a St. Andrews Open would be his best, and perhaps only, chance to compete in a major again.
It’s in his body language and actions. He’s played 58 holes on the Old Course to prepare for this championship since arriving in St. Andrews on Saturday evening, and there’s a poised purpose that wasn’t there at the Masters or PGA Championship.
It’s why he skipped last month’s US Open.
“I don’t know what my career is going to be like,” Woods said. “I’m not going to play a full schedule ever again. My body just won’t allow me to do that. I don’t know how many Open Championships I have left here at St Andrews, but I wanted this one.”
It wasn’t exactly a ceremonial message he was sending. There are plenty of reasons for his optimism.
Unlike the grueling walks at Augusta National and Southern Hills, the Old Course is relatively flat, and the forecast calls for warmer-than-normal conditions, which should allow him to avoid the physical toll that cold fronts during the Masters and PGA Championship took on feel body.
And then there’s the course. The Old Course asks questions that Tiger, even this injured version, can answer. He’s not going to stand on every tee looking to send a driver because he doesn’t have to.
“I think the way the golf course is and the way the conditions are, I could certainly see [Tiger contending],” said Rory McIlroy. “It’s going to be a game of chess this week, and no one’s been better at playing that sort of chess game on a golf course than Tiger over the last 20 years.”
Even at his hard-swinging best, the Old Course was always a game of chess, not checkers, for Tiger.
When he won the 2000 Open at St. Andrews, he pitched the Old Course’s version of a perfect game by rounding the out-and-back course without hitting into a single bunker.
“It’s unbelievably impressive, I don’t know, there are 100-something, 200 bunkers on this golf course?” asked McIlroy, who was quickly informed that there are exactly 112 bunkers.
In 2000, Tiger played his first 36 holes without a bogey, posted four rounds in the 60s and won by seven shots.
It was the same story in 2005, when the game’s oldest championship returned to the Home of Golf. At that championship, he hit 47 of 64 fairways and, in a comparatively poor effort, found just three bunkers and won by only five shots.
Combined, he captured his two titles at St. Andrews by a dozen strokes, and given this week’s fast and fiery conditions, any scenario that sees Tiger in the hunt would be something akin to what he did in 2006 at the brown and bouncy Open at Royal Liverpool. That week, he hit just a single driver and bunted his way to a brilliant two-stroke triumph.
Of course, this is all predicated on his surgically rebuilt right leg withstanding the rigors of major championship golf. After making the cut at the Masters, Tiger seemed to hit a wall physically, and his early exit from Southern Hills was proof of his limitations.
“The walk is certainly a lot easier than those two championships that I played in earlier this year. I’m able to walk a lot more holes,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger since then. I spend more time now that I’ve gotten a chance to work in the weight room and get stronger and get the endurance better in my leg.”
Full-field tee times for the 150th Open Championship
Tiger will need a healthy dollop of good fortune to have any chance whatsoever. He’ll need to be on the right side of whatever weather draws Mother Nature doles out. It would need to be something dramatic with enough wind and rain to skew the competitive fortunes of half the field like the storm at the 2010 championship here that saw McIlroy follow his opening 63 with a title-ending 80.
He’ll also need to leverage every ounce of his course management advantage and short game prowess to make up for what is certain to be a ball-striking gap with the likes of McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele.
But mostly, he’ll need some luck if he’s going to turn back the clock and contend at the one place where his stars could align.