IIt’s been seven years since Tiger Woods was last at the Open at St Andrews and he’s lived there a lot. He’s had countless surgeries, a handful of different relationships, one arrest, spent months away from sports, celebrated his comeback win at Augusta National, then that car accident and subsequent rehab. In 2015, Woods was in his wilderness years and he ended up missing the cut here. “Retirement?” he said at the time. “I’m a long way from that.” This time he looked and sounded a little different. He’s progressed enough now to know that this may be the last time he plays in a Major here.
It could be another six or seven years before the Old Course resurfaces in the open rota. “If it takes that long, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up physically at this level by then. That’s also one of the reasons why I wanted to play in this championship. I don’t know what my career will be like. I know I’ll never play a busy schedule again. My body just doesn’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 he’d played his last one.
After the crash, Woods didn’t know if he would even be able to “play some hit-and-giggle golf with my son.” Even he was surprised at how well his recovery was going. The thought of playing here made him do it. “When I realized I could potentially play at a high level my focus was on getting back here to St Andrews to compete in this championship. I just didn’t want to miss this Open here in the home of golf.” The location is important to him. He keeps a photo in his office from his first practice round here when he played as an amateur in 1995. It shows him posing on the Swilcan Bridge.
“It meant so much to me. This is where I completed the career grand slam. So it meant a lot.” He seems to think about the course like any other golf freak, the only difference being that he’s on the other side of the ropes.
There’s a childish delight in the way he talks about the Old Course. He grinned as he discussed the challenge of playing upwind and the nasty slopes of the greens, and then again as he discussed what a privilege it was to play practice rounds with Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus. In fact, Woods seemed genuinely in awe that he shared a putting green with Bob Charles, who won The Open in 1963. “I just saw him hit 18 it was just so special.”
In 2015, Woods sounded like a man racing against time. Now he seems to be at peace with his death. He’s clearly given a lot of thought to the history of the sport and his place in it. Coming here will do that to you.
“The story of the game is certainly something I took to heart. I think it’s a very important part of understanding the development of our game, where we come from, especially for me as a person who has sometimes had to fight to get into clubhouses or golf courses. So I understand it from another historical perspective. But you have to appreciate everything about this game, how it has evolved and the people who paved the way for us to be able to participate in these events, who created the energy behind it.”
There is, of course, a more important point here in relation to the burgeoning LIV tour and the men who have signed up to play it. All this talk about history was to her advantage, too. He wanted to remind her what really matters. “It’s possible that some players will never get a chance to play in a major championship, never get a chance to experience this, or walk down the fairways at Augusta National. I just don’t understand.”
He will be able to walk the championship course here at least twice more. Or four if he has his way, as he clearly expects to be there next Sunday. “On links courses like this you can go on into your 50’s.” He mentioned Tom Watson’s second place finish at Turnberry in 2009. Watson was 59 at the time. “So that’s doable. It just takes a lot of knowledge and understanding of how to play this style of golf. And because the fairways are fast and firm, it allows older players to get the ball out and have a chance.”
There have been some famous farewells here over the years, Woods, who played here when both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus finished, has seen a few himself. From the way Woods spoke, one wonders if there could be another later this week, and win or lose, he’ll have another famous photo of him on the Swilcan Bridge next to the other on his desk .