Woods returns to St Andrews hoping to rekindle magic at home of golf
It is nothing other than guesswork to suggest Tiger Woods will bid farewell to the Open in the coming week. Even the man himself seems unsure about the extent to which he can compete with a body that has endured far more turmoil than is natural within 46 and a half years. Still, the standard five-year gap between St Andrews Opens means it is legitimate to believe this may be his farewell to the home of golf.
The focus placed by Woods on taking his place in this 150th staging of the major looked to be with a bigger picture in mind. He was not in strong enough physical condition to play in last month’s US Open but there was never any prospect of him skipping the final major of 2022.
It all began in July 1995. The Outhere Brothers sat atop the singles chart with Boom Boom Boom and Liverpool had just smashed the British transfer record with the £8.4m purchase of Stan Collymore from Nottingham Forest. Woods, then a 19-year-old amateur, tied 68th when making his Open debut at the Old Course. The former US president George HW Bush was among the spectators.
Jim Gallagher Jr played alongside Woods in round three. “I was hoping to be paired with him,” Gallagher recalls. “I said exactly that to my wife. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had heard all about him and wanted to see, close up, how he would play. Back then he always hit high shots and didn’t control the ball quite as well so it was interesting to see, over time, how much better he got at that. He spent so much time learning how to play those shots.
“I don’t know if from one round I could ever have said he was going to do what he ultimately did. He kept calling me ‘Mr Gallagher’ and I said: ‘You can stop calling me Mr Gallagher at any time.’ We had a good day, that was my first of two pairings with him – the other was in Atlanta, where he won – and it’s still a cool thing to tell your kids and grandkids. Especially the St Andrews part.
“He was wonderful to play with. We talked a lot. ‘This guy has something special going on,’ was all I kept on thinking. He never looked as if he struggled with all the expectation. He had an inner drive to be great, a desire to beat you and everybody, that you could see in his eyes.”
Five years later, Woods returned to St Andrews as arguably the most famous sportsman in the world. He had cantered to a 15-shot victory at the US Open at Pebble Beach the previous month. We had now firmly entered the era of Tiger: he prevailed at the Old Course by eight, with his highest score of the week a 69.
“You were playing a tournament within a tournament from fairly early on Saturday,” says Thomas Bjørn, who shared second with Ernie Els. “It was apparent to everyone what was happening. We had seen it at Pebble Beach so we were all well aware that it was for him to invite us all into the golf tournament. Nobody had the capability of stepping up to that level otherwise.
“Everybody around the game at that time knew when Tiger was A+, that’s what would happen. He was so far ahead of everybody else. At B+ he would win more times than not but you still had a chance. You just had to enjoy watching it because the level was so exceptionally different to what else was out there.”
At both Pebble Beach and St Andrews, Bjørn competed in Woods’s company. He was well placed therefore to assess both the mindset of the man and the scale of noise around him. “I thought Pebble was bigger,” the Dane says. “I played with him on Saturday at Pebble and it was impossible for anybody other than him. I realised that within two holes. You couldn’t control the world around him there. At St Andrews, people are further away from you and are only on one side. You could kind of hide in the middle of the course there.
“I had a very good relationship with him, we played a lot of practice rounds together. But at majors he was different. He became really unapproachable. It was so controlled, so focused. He was a very different person.”
At the Open of 2000 Peter Dawson assumed master of ceremony duties at the Claret Jug presentation. Dawson had been appointed the R&A’s chief executive in 1999. “It was the millennium Open, it was the first time we staged a past champions’ event with a lot of stars coming back and then we had the great Tiger coming along,” Dawson says. “Jack Nicklaus announced his retirement but he did end up coming back. So the whole thing was huge.
“When Tiger made his victory speech, he said words to the effect of how wonderful it was to win the ‘British’ Open at the home of golf. Then he looked at me sideways and said: ‘The Open Championship, sorry.’ So that was nice.”
Dawson and Bjørn point towards Woods’s course management at that juncture as the best they had ever witnessed. “He said after the Open that it was the best ball-striking championship that he ever had,” Dawson adds. “It surpassed the US Open.”
A pensive Woods took part in a two-minute silence at the 2005 Open, which took place in the aftermath of the 7 July London bombings. Woods later explained that his mother, Kultida, was in the vicinity of one of the explosions. “I was more thankful than anything else because my mum was in the building right across the street,” Woods said. “I was very thankful that my mum is still here.”
Woods led after round one and was never caught, eventually sealing a 10th major title by five from Colin Montgomerie. Woods had also completed a grand slam of majors for a second time.
By 2010, Woods’s reputation had been tarnished by scandal in his personal life which came to light after he crashed his car into a water hydrant. As is the case now, Woods had featured in the JP McManus pro-am in the lead-up to the Open but in contrast to this year he had travelled home to Florida in between events to spend time with his children. Woods and his wife, Elin, divorced within a month of his finishing in a tie for 23rd at the Open. Nine three-putts gave an indication that Woods’s mind was elsewhere.
Lasting only 36 holes in 2015 meant Woods had missed successive major cuts for the first time in his career. Back problems were a constant subject, with Woods undergoing his latest surgery on that area that September.
Woods has stated routinely that the Old Course is his favourite venue. This is quite something, of course, for a Californian who has spent much of his life residing in Florida. There is a heavy element of mutual respect, which will be emphasised by the galleries over the next week. Those in the stands will also recognise that they must enjoy the sight of Woods while they can. This alliance between sporting icon and hallowed turf will not last for ever.