GULLANE, Scotland — Muirfield has not been especially kind to Tiger Woods. In 2002, he came here, after wins at the Masters and the U.S. Open, in search of the calendar-year grand slam only to be rebuffed by a scorecard-wrecking squall in the third round. On Monday, he arrived for an early-morning practice round at the 2013 Open Championship only to be rebuffed by an unsympathetic security guard on the 10th tee.
To preserve the course setup this week, the Royal & Ancient has prohibited players from teeing off before 7 a.m. or after 4 p.m., and they may only go off the first tee. At roughly 6:40 a.m. Monday, Woods arrived on the tee at the par-4 10th, his superstar skier girlfriend Lindsey Vonn in tow. After Woods banged two balls down the fairway, a balding gentleman dressed in black approached the World No. 1 and informed him of the championship’s policy. Minutes later, R&A chief Peter Dawson appeared on the tee to provide further clarification.
“Peter was explaining that he’s having the grounds crew cut [the course] from No. 1 to 18 as a routine, to get them accustomed to that pattern for the championship,” Woods said Tuesday morning. “That’s one of the reasons he wants us to tee off at 7 on the first tee. I totally understand it.”
Woods, whose winless streak at the majors now stands at 16 starts, will need to summon more such equanimity if he is to silence a growing legion of doubters and naysayers and nab his fourth claret jug this week. Muirfield is a rumpled riddle, full of swales and hollows and Titleist-gobbling pot bunkers. Seemingly perfect tee shots can bound through the fairway into knotty lies in the native grasses that line this hallowed links. Crisply clipped chips can trundle through the greens. Putts into a crosswind can wobble this way and that. Patience is a must. Nerves a necessity. Smarts and imagination help, too.
“I’ve played a couple days now, three days, and I’ve only hit a couple of drivers,” said Woods, who pegged it with Jason Day, the long-hitting Aussie, on Sunday. “I remember Jason was playing with me the other day and he hadn’t hit a driver yet. Some of the holes 4-iron was going 280; 3-iron was going a little over 300 yards. So it’s quick. That’s on this wind. Obviously it could change.”
Woods knows that firsthand. During that wet and wild Saturday in 2002, virtually nobody forecast the Muirfield-bound tempest gathering steam in the North Sea. Most players in the afternoon wave, expecting a light sprinkle at worst, set out on the course with little more than their rain jackets. By 2:30 p.m. local time, Muirfield resembled a scene from Deadliest Catch.
“That was the worst I ever played,” Woods said Tuesday. “The windchill was in the 30s. The umbrella became useless, because the wind was blowing so hard. We played through probably 13, 14 holes of it.” The result for Woods: a 10-over-par 81, which remains his worst-ever score as a professional.
“Well, Tiger,” the BBC’s Peter Alliss uttered during the telecast, “I’m sure mother said there would be days like this.”
Woods has had plenty of other trying days since — none quite as sodden or bone-chilling, perhaps, but challenging nonetheless. Since his extra-martial transgressions became headline news in late 2009, Woods has not won a major. Despite winning other Tour events with regularity, he has been glued to 14 major titles like gum to a shoe. “He gets to the majors and something happens,” said Nick Faldo, the six-time major winner, who’s in the Open field this week for the first time since 2010. “The self-belief you have to have, maybe there’s a little dent in there. He hits the wrong shot at the wrong time, where before Tiger would hit the right shot at the right time.”
Even Woods allows that. Well, sort of. “I think it’s a shot here and there,” Woods said when pressed about what has prevented him lately from closing the deal on the game’s biggest stages. “It’s making a key up-and-down here or getting a good bounce there, capitalizing on an opportunity here and there. For instance, this year at Augusta was one of those examples. I really played well, and a good shot ended up having a bad break.”
That would be the Thwack Heard Round the World, Woods’s second-round approach to the 15th green that hit the flagstick and zipped back into the pond. Just like that, a potential 4 turned into a 6 — and eventually an 8, thanks to a thorny rules imbroglio.
Two months later, at the U.S. Open, Woods’s elbow was the story, a niggling injury he had suffered at the Memorial but declined to reveal until the halfway point at Merion. Woods grimaced his way to a top-40 finish (closing 76-74), then announced he wouldn’t play again until Muirfield. And now? “The elbow feels good,” Woods said. “And I’m going to need that elbow to be good. Reports were the rough was going to be high, and it was going to be lush. I needed to have this thing set and healed. Everything is good to go.”
His major (and physical) travails aside, Woods remains the betting favorite. The British bookmaker Ladbrokes has pegged him at 10-1. (Adam Scott, Justin Rose, and recently coronated Scottish Open champion Phil Mickelson are next in line, at a distant 20-1.) And he just may pick up a thing or two from his links-savvy playing partners in the opening two rounds: Louis Oosthuizen and Graeme McDowell.
After his Tuesday morning press conference, Woods slipped out the back door of the media center into a bright, sun-splashed morning. A small gathering of TV reporters approached him, as did golf photographer Ian MacFarlane Lowe, who was hopeful Woods might sign a copy of his coffee-table book, Golf Links of Scotland, which Lowe intends to donate to an organization that supports injured war veterans. Plenty of greats had already inked it: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf. But Lowe was doubtful whether Woods would comply. “Everyone told me, ‘Oh, you’ll never get Tiger. He doesn’t sign anything,” Lowe said.
But this time, Woods did. When Lowe referenced “wounded warriors,” a cause close to Woods’s heart, Woods perked up. After a quick TV interview, he broke through a small pack of hangers-on and made his way to a golf cart where Lowe had the book splayed out. Woods took a pen and signed his name next to Arnold Palmer’s.
It was a small surprise at a championship known for producing big surprises, from Todd Hamilton’s win in 2004, to Adam Scott’s eleventh-hour collapse in 2012, to that wicked storm at Muirfeld in 2002. And this week? Don’t look to Woods for any forecasts.
“That’s the neat thing about links golf,” Woods said. “It’s predictable, but also unpredictable at the same time.”