A New Man Was His Old Self

August 19, 2011

A path into the heart of golf, and into the head of a golfer. Six o’clock on Saturday night, merry old England time, several hours to sunset, weirdly warm and humid. By foot, leave the village of Hoylake, a prosperous suburb 15 miles west of Liverpool’s Penny Lane, past the fishmonger and the news agent and the pubs. Make the short walk to the sweet-smelling privet hedge that marks the entrance to the Royal Liverpool Golf Club. (Free admission if you’re under 16.) March over a playing field as flat as a sleeping sea, covered by a tarp of brown grass. Blow by Prince Andrew and George Clooney on your way to 17. And there, on a knobby old green first used in a British Open in 1897, take it all in: a hardworking golfer, having just missed a four-foot par putt, bent over in psychic pain. It is Tiger Woods, in transition.

At the Masters in April, playing for his dying father, Woods tried too hard and finished three shots behind the winner, Phil Mickelson. “First time I’ve ever seen him do that,” his caddie, Steve Williams, said. Earl Woods died on May 3, and Tiger returned to golf at the U.S. Open in June, when he drove it crookedly, putted poorly and missed the cut. He had never done that before in a major, miss the weekend in 37 starts as a pro. Last week he was back in the Kingdom — he won at St. Andrews a year ago — trying to win the 11th major of his career, at age 30. His analysis of the chessboard of a course was deeply prudent and smart, and it made you think of Ted Williams reading a pitch or Joe Montana reading his receivers or Jack Nicklaus reading the competition.

At Hoylake it became obvious that Woods is seeing a world beyond the driving range. In public comments he referred to Elin, his bride of 21 months, as “my wife.” (“I’ve never been to Italy; my wife’s been there a bunch of times.”) He extended his condolences to Chris DiMarco, whose mother died of a heart attack on July 4. He watched with sorrow TV clips that showed bombs and tanks and death in the Middle East. He’s not living in a cocoon of golf anymore.

But the golf course is still his competitive proving ground, where for years he proved himself to his father, and now his father is gone. Last Saturday, on the 17th green, with his head over the hole, he muttered into it as if the offending jar could hear him, then left the green with his scorecard in his teeth. Tiger, you may know, is not a man prone to eccentric behavior, but with one bogey, with one misstep, he had let in the world. That’s how it seemed, anyway.

By the end of Saturday’s play, Sergio Garcia of Spain, Ernie Els of South Africa and DiMarco, a Floridian by way of Long Island, were all one shot behind Woods. Tiger 2006 is not Tiger 2000. Six years ago he drove it scary straight and very long. With the putter he holed most everything. Players wilted when he was on the top of the leader board. Last week at Hoylake, through two rounds and 17 holes of a third, you couldn’t predict anything. Tiger’s year had had no form, no rhythm, and his father was no longer available for consults. You could only wonder, as the TV ads say of Phil: What will Tiger do next? And for whom?

Usually Woods spends time in Ireland the week before the Open, for fishing and golf and cards with Marko (Mark O’Meara) and Cookie (John Cook) and the boys. This year there was no trip to Ireland, and five days before the start of the championship he began his study of the Hoylake links, which has last hosted the Open in 1967. He knew nothing about the course, but after two practice holes he had something figured out. Putting the ball in the fairway bunkers, nearly perfect rings with vertical walls made of bricks of sod, meant bogey or worse. The choice, he realized, was to play iron off the tee short of them or driver over them. But his driver, on the parched fairways, was going 350 yards or longer. “How can you control a drive that goes 375 yards?” he asked. He knew the answer. On rock-hard fairways, you can’t. Working with Williams and his swing coach, Hank Haney, a game plan was hatched.

Then came the opening bell, Thursday afternoon, 1st hole, par-4, 454 yards. Crooked iron off the tee and into the rough, a two-footer for par jammed through the break, an opening bogey. There’s little in tournament golf as frustrating as making a bogey when you’re trying to make a safe par. For many golfers, even the best players in the world, what you do on the first hole often sets the tone for the day. At the U.S. Open, Woods opened with a bogey and made another on 2 and another on 3. His Winged Foot start had to be somewhere in his head at Royal Liverpool, right?

Wrong. Last week he buried his first-hole hiccup and opened with a 67, five under par. His eagle putt on 18 was punctuated by one of those swift Woodsian fist pumps with jaw set, lips curled, eyes narrow — expressions that make Woods look positively fierce.

His second round was an exhibition in precision golf and included the longest shot he has ever holed in competition. On the 14th, 456 yards and into a slight breeze, he hit a two-iron off the tee (bunker avoidance, bunker avoidance) and a drawing, chasing four-iron from 212 yards that kissed the metal flagstick and disappeared for an eagle. He signed for a Friday 65, a course record matched by DiMarco and, later in the day, Els, setting up this delicious third-round pairing: the front-running Tiger and Ernie in the last twosome on that weirdly warm and humid Saturday afternoon.

It brought to mind the ’77 Open at Turnberry, in a rare Scottish heat wave, when Nicklaus and Tom Watson matched each other shot after amazing shot over the final 36 holes. Going into that weekend, you couldn’t say who had the upper hand. (Watson won by a shot, with rounds of 65 and 65.) With the new Woods and Els still rounding into form after knee surgery last year, there was not an obvious favorite at Hoylake on Saturday, either. But the match was anticlimactic. Els, looking for his fourth major, was off line with his wedge. Tiger, with three three-putts on the back nine, the last on 17, was sloppy with the putter. Both shot 71. Three over, you could say, as the true par was more like 68. Both made birdie on the short par-5 home hole, but Saturday gave no insight into Sunday. We were watching Tiger 2006, the Tiger we don’t really know. The Open was only his 10th PGA Tour event this year. In Saturday’s gloaming, Woods seemed worn out, brown fescue seeds in the cuffs of his pants, sand in his ears, his eyes watery with allergies.

The toll of the majors, to head and body both, seems to be only increasing. That Tiger won four in a row, in this age of scrutiny, that Phil won two straight and nearly a third, is beyond unlikely. Mickelson revealed last month that he typically spends three days in bed after a major, and a post-U.S. Open hangover was on display last week. He prepared hard and well and early and often and finished 22nd, never remotely in it but in good cheer. (Upon hitting a youngster — nothing serious — with an errant shot, Mickelson took off his glove and signed it, sorry, phil.) Geoff Ogilvy, the U.S. Open winner, finished 16th but was never a threat. Colin Montgomerie, a runner-up at Winged Foot with Mickelson and Jim Furyk, missed the cut. Furyk, though, tough as a five-quid steak, finished fourth at Royal Liverpool.

For toughness — not for talent — you’d put Woods and Furyk and DiMarco at nearly the same level. Last week, whenever you saw DiMarco you saw his father, Rich, a St. John’s basketball player in the ’50s, walking the dusty course, traipsing after his son. The week of good golf was therapeutic for father and son both. Chris’s mother, Norma, drove her son all over Florida for junior tournaments, always encouraging him. The family motto is, Don’t take no crap from nobody, and the family’s healing power now, Chris says, comes from its closeness. Last year he lost to Woods in a playoff at the Masters. Last week he finished second to Woods, two shots behind. When Woods ran off three consecutive birdies on Sunday — 14 (pop!), 15 (bam!), 16 (bang!) — DiMarco did not flinch, responding with birdies of his own at 16 and 18. “I know my mom would be very proud of me right now,” he said after shooting a final-round 68. “The hardest part is that I know I’ll never see her again, but if I close my eyes, I see her.” It was moving and refreshing to hear a professional golfer talk about his mother. For whatever reason — U.S. Open Sunday falling on Father’s Day is part of it — it’s too rare.

In the final round DiMarco played with Els in the penultimate twosome, and Garcia, who tied the course record on Saturday, played with Woods in the last. It was a zoo for both pairings, particularly for Garcia and Woods. The fairways were clogged with Royal & Ancient officials, police officers, TV cameramen and radio reporters from several continents, marshals, scorers, rules officials, grounds crew and fishmongers. O.K., not fishmongers; still, it was crowded. But what turned the setting into a circus was the activity behind the ropes: cellphones with heinous ring tones going off regularly, camera phones and cheap cameras being snapped while the players were over their shots. None of the gallery’s electronics are allowed, by the way, but the prohibitions were largely ignored. Garcia’s closing 73 can be attributed partly to the jangled nerves he usually shows when playing with Woods. And part, quite fairly, can be put to distraction. Woods called the Sunday situation “very, very frustrating.”

But then why was Tiger’s Sunday play — he shot 67 — so focused, so stellar, so close to flawless? Because he is where he was. We now have a glimpse of what Tiger’s coming years might look like: his past. Tiger is 11 for 11 in majors when he has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead. Talk about execution: At Hoylake he didn’t hit a single fairway bunker in four rounds. He hit driver once in 72 holes, for which he shot 270, 18 under par, as if that matters to the R&A. It doesn’t. Next month — at the PGA Championship at Medinah, where he held off Garcia in ’99 — we’ll find out whether Tiger can keep the driver in play.

But links golf has always been about iron play — and wind. By Tiger’s count, he missed only three iron shots all week. O.K., the wind was very meager, not a totally thorough test. Still, in an era when the long iron is practically dead, Woods showed his long-iron play is alive and well. He controlled his distances by controlling the trajectory. The excellence of his strikes was announced by the clouds of dirt and grass kicked up by his clubhead.

Will he get to 19 professional majors, one past Nicklaus’s record total and Woods’s holy grail? It’ll be hard. One a year from 2007 through 2014, when he’ll be 38, would do it, but that’s a huge task. Yes, golfers these days are competitive beyond 40. Tom Watson and Fred Funk, combined age 106, made the cut last week. But Woods has been playing on the big stage for 15 years already. For any pro to play at the top of his game for a decade is substantial. With all that he has accomplished, it’s daunting to think he has nearly a decade more to go (at one a year).

But we know more about him now, this golfer and man in transition, than we did when he stood on the 17th green on Saturday, when he could have gone either way in the championship’s final 19 holes. We know now that Tiger Woods, playing for his mother and his wife and himself and his legacy and in his father’s memory, is capable not only of stunning golf, but also of summoning his talent when he most wants it. It didn’t happen at Augusta, it didn’t happen at Winged Foot, but it happened at Royal Liverpool, and one for three in golf is outstanding. We know that he’s evolving as a man in appealing ways. (Nicklaus did the same in his 30s.) We know now that his father’s death did not rob him of emotion. If anything, it did the opposite.

Tiger’s long, sobbing postvictory hug with Williams brought to mind another famous golf embrace. Not the hug Tiger shared with his father in ’97, when he won the Masters for the first time, at age 21, by 12 shots. That was all about, “We did it.” That was all about, “We showed ’em.” The hug on Sunday brought to mind a scene at Augusta in ’95, when the winner, Ben Crenshaw, was comforted by his caddie, Carl Jackson, days after Gentle Ben had buried his teacher and surrogate father, Harvey Penick. The SI cover line was, ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING. Still works.

Tiger was asked about the hug, of course. He said, “It just came pouring out of me, all the things my dad meant to me, and the game of golf. I just wish he could have seen it one more time.” He said, “I’ve never done that before. You know me.”

Actually, we don’t. But we know him better than we did last week. You can see a trip to Italy coming, with the missus, drinking Chianti out of the claret jug, the clubs stashed in a Florida closet. One more major first, though.