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A New Man Was His Old Self

July 31, 2006
July 31, 2006

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July 31, 2006

2006 British Open
GOLF
  • At 30 and no longer able to turn to his father for advice, Tiger Woods is a man in transition on and off the course. In winning his 11th major, at the British Open, he recaptured his magic touch and provided a glimpse into what's still to come--even as he dedicated his play to Pops

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A New Man Was His Old Self

At 30 and no longer able to turn to his father for advice, Tiger Woods is a man in transition on and off the course. In winning his 11th major, at the British Open, he recaptured his magic touch and provided a glimpse into what's still to come--even as he dedicated his play to Pops

A path into theheart 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. Byfoot, leave the village of Hoylake, a prosperous suburb 15 miles west ofLiverpool'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 entranceto the Royal Liverpool Golf Club. (Free admission if you're under 16.) Marchover a playing field as flat as a sleeping sea, covered by a tarp of browngrass. 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: ahardworking golfer, having just missed a four-foot par putt, bent over inpsychic pain. It is Tiger Woods, in transition.

This is an article from the July 31, 2006 issue Original Layout

At the Masters inApril, playing for his dying father, Woods tried too hard and finished threeshots behind the winner, Phil Mickelson. "First time I've ever seen him dothat," his caddie, Steve Williams, said. Earl Woods died on May 3, andTiger 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 theKingdom--he won at St. Andrews a year ago--trying to win the 11th major of hiscareer, at age 30. His analysis of the chessboard of a course was deeplyprudent and smart, and it made you think of Ted Williams reading a pitch or JoeMontana reading his receivers or Jack Nicklaus reading the competition.

At Hoylake itbecame obvious that Woods is seeing a world beyond the driving range. In publiccomments 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.") Heextended his condolences to Chris DiMarco, whose mother died of a heart attackon July 4. He watched with sorrow TV clips that showed bombs and tanks anddeath in the Middle East. He's not living in a cocoon of golf anymore.

But the golf courseis still his competitive proving ground, where for years he proved himself tohis father, and now his father is gone. Last Saturday, on the 17th green, withhis head over the hole, he muttered into it as if the offending jar could hearhim, 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 ofSaturday's play, Sergio García of Spain, Ernie Els of South Africa and DiMarco,a Floridian by way of Long Island, were all one shot behind Woods. Tiger 2006is not Tiger 2000. Six years ago he drove it scary straight and very long. Withthe putter he holed most everything. Players wilted when he was on the top ofthe leader board. Last week at Hoylake, through two rounds and 17 holes of athird, 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, asthe TV ads say of Phil: What will Tiger do next? And for whom?

Usually Woodsspends time in Ireland the week before the Open, for fishing and golf and cardswith Marko (Mark O'Meara) and Cookie (John Cook) and the boys. This year therewas no trip to Ireland, and five days before the start of the championship hebegan 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 somethingfigured out. Putting the ball in the fairway bunkers, nearly perfect rings withvertical walls made of bricks of sod, meant bogey or worse. The choice, herealized, was to play iron off the tee short of them or driver over them. Buthis driver, on the parched fairways, was going 350 yards or longer. "Howcan 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 theopening bell, Thursday afternoon, 1st hole, par-4, 454 yards. Crooked iron offthe tee and into the rough, a two-footer for par jammed through the break, anopening bogey. There's little in tournament golf as frustrating as making abogey when you're trying to make a safe par. For many golfers, even the bestplayers in the world, what you do on the first hole often sets the tone for theday. At the U.S. Open, Woods opened with a bogey and made another on 2 andanother on 3. His Winged Foot start had to be somewhere in his head at RoyalLiverpool, right?

Wrong. Last week heburied his first-hole hiccup and opened with a 67, five under par. His eagleputt on 18 was punctuated by one of those swift Woodsian fist pumps with jawset, lips curled, eyes narrow--expressions that make Woods look positivelyfierce.

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

It brought to mindthe '77 Open at Turnberry, in a rare Scottish heat wave, when Nicklaus and TomWatson 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 wonby a shot, with rounds of 65 and 65.) With the new Woods and Els still roundinginto form after knee surgery last year, there was not an obvious favorite atHoylake on Saturday, either. But the match was anticlimactic. Els, looking forhis fourth major, was off line with his wedge. Tiger, with three three-putts onthe back nine, the last on 17, was sloppy with the putter. Both shot 71. Threeover, you could say, as the true par was more like 68. Both made birdie on theshort par-5 home hole, but Saturday gave no insight into Sunday. We werewatching Tiger 2006, the Tiger we don't really know. The Open was only his 10thPGA Tour event this year. In Saturday's gloaming, Woods seemed worn out, brownfescue seeds in the cuffs of his pants, sand in his ears, his eyes watery withallergies.

The toll of themajors, to head and body both, seems to be only increasing. That Tiger won fourin a row, in this age of scrutiny, that Phil won two straight and nearly athird, is beyond unlikely. Mickelson revealed last month that he typicallyspends three days in bed after a major, and a post--U.S. Open hangover was ondisplay last week. He prepared hard and well and early and often and finished22nd, never remotely in it but in good cheer. (Upon hitting ayoungster--nothing serious--with an errant shot, Mickelson took off his gloveand signed it, sorry, phil.) Geoff Ogilvy, the U.S. Open winner, finished 16thbut was never a threat. Colin Montgomerie, a runner-up at Winged Foot withMickelson and Jim Furyk, missed the cut. Furyk, though, tough as a five-quidsteak, finished fourth at Royal Liverpool.

For toughness--notfor 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'sbasketball player in the '50s, walking the dusty course, traipsing after hisson. The week of good golf was therapeutic for father and son both. Chris'smother, Norma, drove her son all over Florida for junior tournaments, alwaysencouraging him. The family motto is, Don't take no crap from nobody, and thefamily's healing power now, Chris says, comes from its closeness. Last year helost to Woods in a playoff at the Masters. Last week he finished second toWoods, two shots behind. When Woods ran off three consecutive birdies onSunday--14 (pop!), 15 (bam!), 16 (bang!)--DiMarco did not flinch, respondingwith birdies of his own at 16 and 18. "I know my mom would be very proud ofme right now," he said after shooting a final-round 68. "The hardestpart is that I know I'll never see her again, but if I close my eyes, I seeher." It was moving and refreshing to hear a professional golfer talk abouthis mother. For whatever reason--U.S. Open Sunday falling on Father's Day ispart of it--it's too rare.

In the final roundDiMarco played with Els in the penultimate twosome, and García, who tied thecourse record on Saturday, played with Woods in the last. It was a zoo for bothpairings, particularly for García and Woods. The fairways were clogged withRoyal & Ancient officials, police officers, TV cameramen and radioreporters from several continents, marshals, scorers, rules officials, groundscrew and fishmongers. O.K., not fishmongers; still, it was crowded. But whatturned the setting into a circus was the activity behind the ropes: cellphoneswith heinous ring tones going off regularly, camera phones and cheap camerasbeing snapped while the players were over their shots. None of the gallery'selectronics are allowed, by the way, but the prohibitions were largely ignored.García's closing 73 can be attributed partly to the jangled nerves he usuallyshows when playing with Woods. And part, quite fairly, can be put todistraction. Woods called the Sunday situation "very, veryfrustrating."

But then why wasTiger'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 yearsmight look like: his past. Tiger is 11 for 11 in majors when he has had atleast a share of the 54-hole lead. Talk about execution: At Hoylake he didn'thit a single fairway bunker in four rounds. He hit driver once in 72 holes, forwhich 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 García in'99--we'll find out whether Tiger can keep the driver in play.

But links golf hasalways been about iron play--and wind. By Tiger's count, he missed only threeiron shots all week. O.K., the wind was very meager, not a totally thoroughtest. Still, in an era when the long iron is practically dead, Woods showed hislong-iron play is alive and well. He controlled his distances by controllingthe trajectory. The excellence of his strikes was announced by the clouds ofdirt and grass kicked up by his clubhead.

Will he get to 19 professional majors, one past Nicklaus's record total andWoods's holy grail? It'll be hard. One a year from 2007 through 2014, whenhe'll be 38, would do it, but that's a huge task. Yes, golfers these days arecompetitive beyond 40. Tom Watson and Fred Funk, combined age 106, made the cutlast 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. Withall that he has accomplished, it's daunting to think he has nearly a decademore to go (at one a year).

But we know moreabout him now, this golfer and man in transition, than we did when he stood onthe 17th green on Saturday, when he could have gone either way in thechampionship's final 19 holes. We know now that Tiger Woods, playing for hismother and his wife and himself and his legacy and in his father's memory, iscapable not only of stunning golf, but also of summoning his talent when hemost 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 samein his 30s.) We know now that his father's death did not rob him of emotion. Ifanything, it did the opposite.

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

Tiger was askedabout the hug, of course. He said, "It just came pouring out of me, all thethings my dad meant to me, and the game of golf. I just wish he could have seenit one more time." He said, "I've never done that before. You knowme."

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

SI.COM

Check out Alan Shipnuck's Hot List and Jim Gorant'sPower Rankings at SI.com/golf.

When Woods ran off three birdies, DiMarco DIDN'T FLINCH."I know my mom would be proud of me right now," he said.
"I've never done that," Tiger said of hisoutburst. "You know me." Actually, we don't. But we KNOW HIM BETTERthan we did.
TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by Robert Beck; NEWS INTERNATIONAL/VIA WIREIMAGE.COM TEARFULCELEBRATION
Tiger lost it after finishing a flawless final round, but Elin was waiting withthe hug her husband needed.
PHOTOFRED VUICH (DIMARCO) PUMPED
DiMarco refused to fold on Sunday, making four back-nine birdies and holingthis 50-footer for par at the 14th hole.
THREE PHOTOSROBERT BECK (GARCIA, MICKELSON, ELS) OH FORTHREE
Though they had their moments early on, (from left) García, Mickelson and Elswere no match for Woods.
PHOTOFRED VUICH SOUNDSTRATEGY
Woods played short of Hoylake's treacherous fairway bunkers, then followed upwith crisp approach shots.
PHOTOROBERT BECK BEARHUNTING
Woods won his third claret jug and pulled closer to Nicklaus's majorchampionship record.