There was plenty to learn from Tiger Woods’ star-studded practice round with Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson

July 15, 2019

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Dustin Johnson called Tiger Woods over on the 6th green at Royal Portrush to check out his green-reading book.

“There’s, like, a million arrows!” he said. “They’re all touching each other. I can see ’em all — I just can’t see where they’re pointing.”

Woods cracked up.

But Johnson had a point — the treachery of links golf is back, and the undulating greens that come with it. On Monday morning, Johnson, Woods and Rickie Fowler — three tournament favorites — teed off at 8 a.m. local time for an 18-hole Open Championship practice round. Royal Portrush, a 131-year-old course on the tip of Northern Ireland, is hardly new, but few of the competitors have ever played here. That means study time.

Although Woods hasn’t teed it up since the U.S. Open a month ago, he’s had a busy schedule. From Pebble Beach, he headed to Southeast Asia for a 12-day trip with his mother Tida, his kids Sam and Charlie, and his girlfriend Erica Herman. The trip was reportedly the brainchild of Tida, who wanted her grandchildren to see where she had grown up, now that they’re old enough to appreciate it.

Post-vacation, Woods returned to Florida, where he’s been prepping from home (and practicing early wake-ups). On Saturday night, he packed up the jet for Portrush, landed Sunday morning and headed straight for the course. Woods has played mostly nine-hole practice rounds of late, but Portrush is particularly foreign — and demands particular attention. He and Patrick Reed trekked 18 and were done by early afternoon.

Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Tiger Woods on Monday at Royal Portrush.
Getty Images

Woods arranged the star-studded threesome with Johnson and Fowler. Again Woods played the full 18, finishing in about four-and-a-half hours. Those fans trickling in early Monday flocked to the group; Woods’ magnetism works in this part of the world, too.

In planning out the schedule, Woods no doubt had his eye on the weather; rain is forecast for Portrush every day the rest of the week. Still, the 36-hole stretch was a positive sign for those who had doubted Woods’ full health.

Even three days out from competition, each of the three was intently focused on getting a sense of the course. No. 8 provided a case study in strategic options: Woods opted for 2-iron, Fowler hit 3-wood and Johnson pulled driver, each taking radically different lines. By the green, Woods dropped three balls in one spot. First he hit a mega-flop, which sailed most of the way to the hole and trickled to a stop. Next he hit a pitch, which flew long and left, rolled up the slope behind the hole and then funneled back down the hill, onto the green and near the flag. He picked up putter and rapped a third ball, this time to the right of the hole, which came off the opposite slope and careened back toward the hole. Three radically different approaches, none more correct than the next. Portrush is a playground for golf nerds.

The trio learned plenty about the way Portrush will play this week. The course is far greener than the baked-out links of Carnoustie in 2018. But it’s still fast, evidenced by the driver-5-iron combo Woods used to reach the 592-yard uphill 7th.

Johnson said afterward, “The fairways aren’t real firm but the greens are, they’re bouncing, which makes it tough because a lot of holes are raised with a false front you can’t really bounce it up, you have to fly it onto the green.” Woods described the effect after one chip. “They’re slow,” he said, “but they’re springy as hell.”

Just how difficult will the course play? Fowler was reluctant to pinpoint an exact number. “We were talking about it out there, Tiger and D.J. and I, and so much is just going to depend on where the wind is blowing from, how hard, how much rain, that kind of thing — I don’t really have a prediction but I feel like going around here, shooting any score under par is going to be a great day.” Fowler added that rain could spell difficulty. “I think once you get some water on the ground or light rain, you start to lose a little control of the golf ball, any kind of moisture can get it a little questionable at times,” he said.

Fowler’s game looked the sharpest of the three, well-suited to the course’s style despite his missed cut at last week’s Scottish Open. He attested that the group made for an enjoyable round. “It was great, Tiger and I play and practice a bit at home, we got a couple days of work in before I left for the Scottish,” Fowler said. “D.J. is another one that lives down in south Florida so we’re not strangers, that’s for sure. It’s fun to be able to play with two of the best in the world and one of the greatest that’s ever played, but that they’re some of our good buddies, too.”

There were plenty of lighter moments throughout the round. Fowler and Johnson, musing whether they could enter the tournament by walking from nearby rental houses through a fan entrance. Woods calling aside Fowler’s coach, Claude Harmon III, to ask if his father, Butch (Woods’ former coach), still has “that hard pull in his putting stroke.” Fowler, putting consecutive balls onto the green only to see them roll off the side, mini-golf style.

They played, but mostly they worked. Each has plenty to prove this week. Fowler, somehow still in search of his first major. Johnson, somehow still in search of his second. And Woods, whose sparse playing schedule has somehow put even more scrutiny onto his starts.

Scorekeeping begins Thursday. But there was some urgency already on Monday at Portrush, with weather on the way — and so much still to learn.

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