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Tiger Not Yet Out of the Woods

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA | Two down and two to go. Tiger Woods is running out of major championships to win in what was meant to be the year of his dreams for the world No. 1. Asked last week what would be the favorite sites for the four major championships, he replied: “I’d probably pick St. Andrews all four times.” No luck at Augusta in April nor at Pebble Beach last week, Woods must be wondering whether he can be successful in the Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews next month.

If Woods is to win his fourth Open (and his third at the home of golf) he will have to play better than he did last week. Though there was a flurry of hope on Saturday when Woods looked to be the Tiger Woods of old during a 66, he is not the player he was and with every major championship that passes the chances of his equalling, never mind exceeding, Jack Nicklaus’ 18 victories in professional major championships looks less likely. Not out of the question but less likely.

Woods’ remarkable 66 on Saturday, we now realize, was a false dawn, though at the time it looked as though he had worked himself into an excellent position from which to launch a final-day attack. All those holed putts. That remarkable second shot to the 18th. Woods wore fawn trousers and a matching fawn sweater, an unusual combination for the the man who mostly favours drab, baggy trousers all week topped off by a red shirt on the final day. Lighter in dress on Saturday, was Woods also lighter in attitude and was that why he played so much better?

On Saturday he had the lowest back nine of the tournament, a 31, and his 66 shared the lowest 18 holes total with Dustin Johnson. Not needing to use his driver so often, he was not so wayward from the tee. After three rounds he was fifth in fairways hit, tied sixth in the birdie count with 11 (and that after not scoring any in his first round) and sixth in greens in regulation.

Frank Nobilo, the former Tour player, and Curtis Strange, twice an Open champion, both said on air on Saturday they thought Woods’ shoulder plane was more as it should be and, significantly, more as it used to be. Could the plane of Woods’ shoulders be a metaphor for his life, at least his golfing life? If his shoulders were more on plane then was his golf going to get better?

Some people undoubtedly had mixed feelings at seeing Woods play the way he did on Saturday. By this I mean those who feel offended by his rudeness in recent months, and by his often charmless manner when he could have been graceful. Why is he making himself so hard to like at the moment?

On Thursday afternoon he was blunt in his criticism of the greens. He could have made his point in a more subtle way. He used not to whine and in this he was like Nick Faldo. “No point in whining, chaps. It’s the same for everyone. Just got to get on with it.” That was Faldo’s attitude, his English upper lip rigidly stiff. It took Notah Begay, Woods’ university teammate and friend, to slap Woods down publicly for these unnecessary remarks. “That’s Tiger whining,” he said on Golf Channel.

There is a spikiness about Woods that used not to be there. When he and Tom Watson, two Stanford University graduates, found themselves sharing the 10th tee on a practice day, the temperature suddenly dropped 40 degrees. Woods, who was playing with Joseph Bramlett, another Cardinal, stayed on one side of the tee while Watson remained on the other. There may have been only a few yards between them but it might as well have been the Pacific Ocean. All this because Watson had publicly chided Woods over his manners a few months ago.

One of those who have become disenchanted with Woods whispered in my ear as we stood by the first green on Sunday: “Havret’s name is not even on the board. And he’s fourth in the tournament. That’s disgraceful. I hope he cleans Tiger’s clock.”

As it happens, Woods cleaned his own clock. On Sunday, he was back to the wild, inconsistent player he had been at Augusta, missing the first fairway with an iron, driving with an iron into a fairway bunker on the fourth and catching the trees with a 3-wood from the tee on the third, hitting a 3-wood over the cliff on the sixth on his way to a 75.

He was back in his drab, baggy trousers, too, and even his red shirt could not brighten his aura. He looked uninspired. Even holing a 25-footer across the seventh green did not get him excited. “I feel I put some pieces together this week” Woods said. “It’s a long process but I hit some shots this week that I haven’t hit in a long time.”

So it’s on to Scotland, where it will be warmer, and where the challenge for Woods will be the same. Did he really show some improvement on the Monterey Peninsula last week? St. Andrews in four weeks will tell us.


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