Everything’s a bit slower and more methodical with Tiger Woods these days.
The walk, the practice range sessions, even the delivery in his press conferences.
Where once burned a prickly intensity, he now faces his inquisitors with something akin to rapprochement.
Where once he gave nothing away, Woods seems more open to letting us in. Or at least, now and again. Perhaps he’s tiring of the fight, or maybe just relieved to be still of interest.
Ahead of the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush Tuesday, a relaxed, more reflective Woods was asked whether he had tapped into any of the local knowledge of the likes of Portrush local Graeme McDowell or Northern Ireland natives Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke. Or even Ricky Elliott, caddie to world No.1 Brooks Koepka, and another born and bred in the seaside town on Northern Ireland’s north coast.
“Tell you a funny story,” said Woods, explaining how he had texted Koepka to congratulate him on another good finish at the US Open. “And I said, ‘hey dude, do you mind if I tag along and play a practice round [at Portrush]. I’ve heard nothing.”
‘Unbelievable golf course’
Woods beamed, pleased with his joke, reporters chuckled, pleased to have been tossed a nugget.
The 43-year-old golfer explained how he has been to Ireland many times to fish and play golf, with the likes of the late Payne Stewart and Mark O’Meara, but he admitted he’d never been this far north (Portrush is in Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK).
Asked if he had sampled any Guinness – the dark black stout famous in this part of the world – Woods said not this week. “In the past? Mmm, mmm.”
Woods described Royal Portrush as “wonderful” and an “unbelievable golf course,” adding it was “amazing” the Open hasn’t been played here since 1951.
He either missed or glossed over the fact that political and social strife – the infamous “Troubles,” which many hope are a thing of the past since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – are the reason the province has been overlooked for golf’s oldest major for so long.
Cut off from Koepka
Woods chewed gum and occasionally stooped slowly to drink from a cup during his leisurely morning range session among the dunes of Portrush’s dramatic linksland.
A three-time champion, Woods won his last Open title at Hoylake near Liverpool in England in 2006, but he sent shockwaves around Carnoustie last summer as he briefly took the lead haflway through the final round during his comeback year from spinal fusion surgery.
His remarkable Masters victory in April, a first major for 11 years and 15th in all, was final confirmation the 43-year-old’s career is somewhat back on track.
Woods struggled in the ensuing PGA Championship and US Open, revealing Tuesday the Masters took a lot out of him – “that golf course puts so much stress on the system” – and admitted it’s “hard to believe I pulled it off.”
But Koepka’s phone silence speaks volumes.
The impressive Koepka has won four of his last nine majors and has been second in two more this season, including behind Woods at Augusta. So he knows only too well that on the right course, in the right week, Woods can be a major threat.
Woods, however, has an eye on the changeable weather forecast this week. Colder temperatures inhibit his back, saved from the brink by spinal fusion surgery two years ago.
He’s also undercooked on the golf course, having recently spent time in Thailand with his family.
“It’s not quite as sharp as I’d like to have it right now,” said Woods, sporting a white tape on the second finger of his right hand and a red, white and blue beaded bracelet next to his silver watch on the left.
‘Art to playing links golf’
At least Woods is not the only one who can’t be accused of overdoing things.
Koepka admitted the only time he practices is before major tournaments. “Regular tournaments, I don’t practice,” he said, displaying a sparkle most golf fans would like to see more of. “If you’ve seen me on TV, that’s when I play golf.”
He did add, ominously, that coming second in two of the year’s three majors was not good enough. “Finishing second sucks,” he said. He won’t like this stat then – since 1986 only Woods has won the Open as world No.1.
But despite his advancing years and physical frailties, Woods takes comfort in the feats of Tom Watson, who went so close to winning the Open at Turnberry at 59, or Greg Norman, who was 53 when he tied for third at Royal Birkdale in 2008.
“There is an art to playing links golf,” said Woods, referring to the type of undulating, seaside courses among sand dunes used to host the Open championship.
“It allows players who don’t hit the ball very far to run the golf ball out there. Being able to control the ball in the air to control it on the ground allows the older players to have a chance to do well in the Open Championship.”
Woods revealed in the build-up to the Open he has been getting up at 1 a.m. back home in Florida to acclimatize for coming over to Portrush.
The body clock might be rewired, but Woods knows the clock is ticking on his career.
But where once a question such as, “how are you going to celebrate if you win the Claret Jug?” might have been shot down, the questioner perhaps treated to a death stare, the latest Woods model just laughed along.
“I’ve got a few days to work on that part,” he chuckled. “Let’s take it one step at a time.”