LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — There are 206 bunkers at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where the lush rough can be borderline "unplayable," according to Tiger Woods, and the weather is expected to be horrible (Wednesday), followed by "sunny spells" (Thursday-Saturday) and "chance of rain" (Sunday). Just about anyone in the 156-man field who has a hot and/or lucky week can win the 141st British Open, as evidenced by the 15 different winners in the last 15 majors.
Other than that, the week is entirely predictable.
All of which is to say I have a new appreciation for Woods, or I should say the old Woods, the guy who surgically removed the randomness from golf, the guy who was about as random as gravity or the 1919 World Series.
Where did that guy go? And will he ever return? Woods was "back" after winning at Bay Hill, his first victory in 923 days, but then he tied for 40th at the Masters. He was "back" when he won the Memorial and played his way into the final twosome on Saturday at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, but he dropped into a tie for 21st place. He was "back" when he won the AT&T National — his third victory this year and 74th overall, surpassing Nicklaus — but he missed the cut at the Greenbrier.
Back, back, back; never mind, never mind, never mind. Woods isn't so much the world's greatest golfer as he is a botched Chris Berman home run call. Woods admitted Tuesday he's been perplexed by his inconsistency, and he's not alone. We've entered the age of not knowing, a time to admit I know one thing, that I know nothing, as Socrates may or may not have said (we don't know). That is not a typical media take; it's more Buddhist, which Woods might appreciate.
You could argue that we never knew Woods, and you'd be right. But we knew Woods the golfer. That was part of his appeal. Life is random and uncertain and terrifying and we drive ourselves crazy trying to figure it out, but Woods was a sure thing. Of the top five winning streaks in PGA Tour history, Woods authored three: seven in a row from 2006 to '07, six straight from '99 to 2000, and five consecutive victories from '07 to '08. Only Byron Nelson (11 straight in 1945) was more automatic, and so with Woods, for once, we didn't need to surrender the need to know. We knew. There was an inevitable quality to him, like Harry Potter with a Nike driver instead of a Nimbus 2000. We knew the ending, but still we had to see it.
Conjurers call it up-close magic. That's what we saw in covering Woods. He won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots, like a true golfing superhero. At the British Open at St. Andrews a month later, he shot 19 under to win by "only" eight. If that wasn't his absolute zenith, it was probably when Woods was pushed to the brink by the feisty no-name Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla. No, wait. It was the Monday that a limping Woods beat the feisty Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Yes, it was definitely that one. A thick layer of fans strained against the gallery ropes on 18, and Woods settled over his ball, backed off at a sound in the crowd, set up again and blistered his second shot at the green. We watched and waited, all but knowing the result of the match, awaiting only the specifics, yet somehow captivated by all of it.
Covering Woods is different now. I hear it at parties, where the Woods talk ends up devolving into jokes and questions. Is he done? Yes. Will he ever come back? Yes. Woods has been sidelined by his left knee, which he's had operated on four times, and his Achilles tendons. After hurting himself swinging from a bed of pine straw at the 2011 Masters, Woods missed last summer's U.S. Open for the first time since 1994, and he has gone long stretches in which he's been unable to practice.
That goes a long way toward explaining today's Tiger, as does the conventional wisdom that a golfer has only so many clutch six-footers in him before his nerves start to fray on the greens. The younger Woods had a frightening, single-minded devotion to his craft; the 36-year-old Woods has two kids.
He remains the betting favorite at Lytham — 7- or 8-to-1 — but that's only because someone has to be. When you think about what's been happening in the majors — Keegan Bradley winning in his first major start at the PGA, Bubba Watson riding a hot streak at the Masters, Webb Simpson never leading until the end of the U.S. Open — there are no favorites anymore. There can't be.
At the Honda Classic earlier this year, Woods waded into the gallery to find a wide-right tee shot. He seemed to be out of position, but his next shot from the rough rolled just past the pin; he'd probably be fine. As he fast-walked back to the fairway, a fan got in his ear: "You were the greatest of all time, Tiger! You dominated like no one else! Not even Jordan was better in his sport!"
The man meant well, but his words were a reminder of how far we've come. That was a different era, when we knew, when Woods removed the guess work from a sport in which so many things can go wrong. Woods, who has won three times (four if you count his Chevron World Challenge last December) and withdrawn with injuries three times since the start of 2010, who is most definitely "back" except for the weeks when he isn't, marched to the green, eyes locked straight ahead, chased by a whirl of uncertainty that won't go away.