Woods in pursuit of old guard

April 9th, 2010 by

www.bbc.co.uk – The Tiger Woods saga is a bit like wrestling an octopus. Just when you think it’s under control it comes at you from another angle.

Woods seemed to have made steps to enter a new phase in his life after Monday’s positive news conference. But then came the stern and quite surprising lecture from Augusta chairman Billy Payne on the eve of the Masters. It didn’t end there, though.

The opening day dawned with news that Woods had filmed a controversial new advert for his sponsors using his late father’s voice, essentially trading on his indiscretions.

And now this.

After five months away from golf, Woods comes back and shoots 68 for his best first-round score at the Masters. Despite everything that has happened to him in recent times, he is only two shots off the lead, held by Fred Couples.

But what did we really expect? Not for nothing has Woods won 14 major titles. And he has had success after breaks before – remember that US Open that he won on one leg in 2008?

Some doubted whether Woods’s lack of competitive golf would reduce his sharpness. Sir Nick Faldo even questioned whether he would make the cut. He still could miss out.

But Woods is one of the most ferocious competitors of all time and does not do half-hearted. Even if his game is off, he will out-try anyone in the field. There were blemishes, of course, although everyone has them, but Woods is only likely to get better as he eases back into the old routine.

Part of the new routine, certainly during the practice days, involved engaging more with fans, though Woods stressed he might not keep it up during the tournament. But he did make more eye contact as he walked to the first tee, a time when he normally hides behind an unflinching game face.

Some boos and pantomime hisses rang out as he inched through the huge crowds, but cheers quickly drowned them out. Woods even broke into a smile and doffed his cap as he strode down the fairway. “The people were just incredible, all day,” he said.

Woods vowed on Monday to show the game more respect and be a calmer presence on the course. The reaction to his eagle on the 15th certainly appeared to be consciously low key. And there were definitely more smiles than in recent years.

Some of the small traits that irked many before his lay-off were still in evidence – the spitting (he’s only one of a sizeable number who do) and signs of a mini-tantrum here and there. But even Tiger, a golfing machine, can’t change his stripes overnight.

As for that advert, Woods is unrepentant. “I think it’s very apropos,” he said. “It’s amazing how my dad can speak to me in different ways, even when he’s long gone. I think any son who had lost a father who meant so much in life would understand.”

So after a tumultuous build-up, Woods’s golf career is back on track. And how normal it all felt after just a few holes.

That’s roughly where this blog might have ended had it not been for two old-timers who came out and showed the young bucks how to play Augusta.

Couples was tipped by many, including Phil Mickelson, to be a contender before the tournament and the three-time winner on the senior tour this year lived up to his billing.

The 50-year-old, who doesn’t wear socks – he wears footwear similar to tennis shoes for his bad back and doesn’t like wearing socks with tennis shoes – admitted it is a “pipe dream” to win the Masters at his age. “Can I still win? Of course,” he said. “But I’ve got a lot of golf left to even think about being in contention.”

But Kenny Perry lost a play-off at the age of 48 last year, and Tom Watson, 10 years older than Couples and just one stroke behind him, came within an inch or so of winning the Open last year, eventuallty losing in a play-off.

Jack Nicklaus revealed earlier this week that Watson was traumatised by failing to close out the win at Turnberry, but Watson himself says he is “still glowing” about his achievement because so many older people have told him he inspired them.

Watson has been quite public with his feelings that the newly stretched Augusta has become too much for him, but he showed that, with kind pin positions and a favourable wind, experience counts for a lot.

“The beautiful thing about this golf course is there’s tragedy waiting on just about every hole,” said Watson. “And you always know it.”

The two-time Masters champion admitted he had been inspired by his son Michael, who is caddying for him this week. Watson Jr said: “Dad, show me you can still play this golf course.” “You know what, I wanted to show him,” replied his old man, who last shot 67 in 1990.

As well as experience, what Couples and Watson had in common at Augusta on Thursday was the fact that they both took only 24 putts. That’s compared to 29 each for Mickelson, Lee Westwood and YE Yang, and 27 for KJ Choi, the other men tied with Watson on five under.

The old boys may not have the length of the younger fellas – Watson averaged 281 yards with his drives and Couples 286 yards, compared to 291 yds, 291.5 yds, 292.5 yds, 294 yds for Yang, Choi, Westwood and Mickelson respectively. (Woods averaged 299, by the way.)

But when all is said and done, it’s your ability to get the ball in the hole that counts most in this game. And the man who perhaps understands this the best is Woods, which is why a fifth Green Jacket is now a distinct possibilty.

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