Pictures: Golffile/Eoin Clarke
By Mike Green
Nobody was daring to say it, but there was almost a sense of farewell as Tiger Woods walked up the 18th fairway at the end of the elongated second round of the Open Championship.
The applause was of a similar affectionate nature as was given a day earlier to the departing greats Nick Faldo and Tom Watson, who played their last Open Championships at the Old Course in the 144th Open.
“To have that kind of a warm reception coming up 18 is awfully special,” said Woods. “It’s one of the things I was talking about with Jason (Day). We were coming up 18, I said, it’s the greatest walk in golf. He says, yeah, it’s nice when you have an eight-shot lead, too.”
Of course, that was a reference to Woods in his pomp, when he took the 2000 Open at St Andrews from Ernie Els and Thomas Bjorn by eight shots.
Five years later, he became the fifth player to win a second Open at St Andrews after Bob Martin, JH Taylor, James Braid and Jack Nicklaus – this time he won by five strokes from Colin Montgomerie. He won his last Open Championship in 2006 at Royal Liverpool.
That may have been his final Open title.
He is a shadow of the golfer who was as dominant as any in any generation, and, as the world watches his attempts to resurrect his career with the fascination reserved for a train-wreck, there must be an increasing realisation that, in the words of The Scotsman’s John Huggan, “The time has come, however, to utter out loud what would once have been unthinkable: at least as far as competing at the highest level is concerned, Woods is finished. Yes, finished. It’s done. Over. Kaput. Nae mair. His tea is officially oot. His knittin’ ripped.”
It was apparent from the very first hole of this Open: “On the very first hole on the first day, I fatted a sand wedge in the water. I fatted my three-iron off the tee, and then I fatted my eight-iron into the green on two, drove it in a divot there on four,” Woods said after posting a second-round 75 to finish seven shots over the cut line. “It was just one thing after another.”
What is a little baffling is the party line that ‘golf needs Tiger Woods’. And that seems to be simply untrue. Perhaps television THINKS it needs Woods, but golf will do just fine as he becomes part of the rich tapestry of the history of the game.
The rise and rise of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, to name just the standouts of a crop of great current players who make the game fascinating to watch, has made sure that there is enough excitement, even in Woods’ absence.
That the leaderboard of The Open at St Andrews is dotted with such an eclectic mix of names and nationalities, and with players from more tours than just the US PGA Tour, is far, far better for golf than the unhealthy dominance of the time we already have to start looking back on as ‘the Woods era’.
There can seldom have been less relish in the game than that exhibited now by Woods. Jeff Ritter wrote on Golf.com: “There are mounds of gruesome numbers from Woods’s 36 holes: he missed 13 of 32 fairways and one out of every three greens; he failed to card a birdie on the front nine, the Old Course’s easier side; he made just three birdies in 36 holes.”
But here’s the thing: Why SHOULD he feel any shame and embarrassment? There was a moment in his greenside press conference after his missed cut when he said, “I’m just not scoring. Every opportunity I have to make a key putt or hit an iron shot in there stiff with a short iron and get some momentum going, I haven’t done that. I haven’t gotten anything out of my rounds. I’ll hit good shots, I’ll string together some good shots and good holes and put myself in position to make a run, and I don’t do it.
“It’s frustrating, there’s no doubt, because I’m not making those runs. To win major championships, I’ve always thought you needed to have two good nine-hole stretches. They don’t have to be in the same day, but you’ve got to have a nice run in there, and I haven’t done that at all.”
Perhaps the desire to be what he was is precisely what is holding him back – a little like Muhammad Ali’s bizarre bouts late in his career, or like an ageing distance runner who falls off the pack in a marathon, he believes he can still do what he used to. Perhaps he needs to give himself permission to be 40, and then things will fall in place again.
Perhaps then, the forlorn figure which battled around St Andrews this year will elicit more than warm applause again. “I’ve won here a couple times,” he said. “I wasn’t all that great in 2010. Obviously a little bit worse here in ’15. Next time it comes around, hopefully I play a little bit better than I did the last two times. I’ll probably have less hair then and hopefully a little better game.”
But it shouldn’t matter.