Rather Beat Course Than Pain

A Year After Injury, Woods Happy To Be Back At British Open

July 15, 2009|By Chuck Culpepper | Chuck Culpepper,Tribune Newspapers

TURNBERRY, Scotland - - One year after the Royal and Ancient Golf Club boldly held a British Open with Tiger Woods 4,230 miles away - and somehow pulled it off - it's holding one with him present to the delight of most everybody, and Woods.

Negotiating the callous crosswinds of Turnberry in 2009 trumps trying to get from one room to another in 2008.

"My day consisted of trying to get from the bed to the couch and then from there back to the bed," Woods said Tuesday, recalling last year's week at Britain's Royal Birkdale club. "That was my day. I was going through some of the worst pain at the time. Just basically the 2 1/2 -week, two-week mark, I was in pretty good pain."

Recovering from knee surgery of June 24, 2008, he barely watched the 137th British Open on England's west coast. He missed Greg Norman's run to the 54-hole lead at age 53. He only really caught up with the last nine holes on Sunday, long enough to feel "amazed at how windy it was" and to marvel at Padraig Harrington's back-nine 32, which Woods found "pretty phenomenal."

Now Harrington returns as the two-time defending champion - and reigning PGA Championship titlist - who has missed six cuts in his past seven tournaments while retooling his swing, as Woods returns as the overwhelming favorite who has won three times since March after retooling both his knee (in 2008) and his swing (in 2003, 2004 and 2005).

As Woods tries to decipher a British Open golf course he had never played before this week, remember he arrived in 2006 trying to decipher a British Open golf course he had never played before that week.

And that tournament went rather swimmingly.

"You just have to do more homework in your practice rounds," he said, words laced with wisdom after having come to Royal Liverpool on England's west coast in 2006, when he shot 67-65-71-67 for an 18-under-par 270, won the tournament for a third Claret Jug and, along the way, even devised an unforeseen way to play the course.

He used his driver once all week.

"That's what's so hard about links golf: It's hard to tell you I'm going to hit 10 drivers or I'm going to hit zero drivers; I don't know," he said. "At Hoylake, the game plan was to probably hit about four or five. But as the ground got faster and faster and faster" - in a scalding British summer - "and my 2-iron and 3-wood were going over 300 yards, you get to a point where you really can't control how far the ball is going to go. So the driver, I didn't really utilize it that much."

The resulting display, on the Friday in particular, earned rare praise from John Hopkins of The Times of London, who called it the "greatest demonstration of mid- and long-iron play I'd ever seen in 50-odd years of playing and watching golf."

What Woods might concoct for Turnberry will join the story lines as he embarks Thursday with Englishman Lee Westwood, 17-year-old Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa and hordes of American, British and Japanese media in a contingent Woods wisecracked will be "very quiet."

Only 18 of the 156 entries played 15 years ago in the last British Open at Turnberry. Some have played it in other events, as when the second-highest-ranked player in the field, Paul Casey, played in a British Amateur in 1996 in conditions so spiteful that his playing partner in the last group of the day, a San Francisco stockbroker, reckoned himself entitled to steal the flag at the 14th hole. Others haven't seen the course before despite their nationality.

"No, I've never seen it," said Ian Poulter, the Englishman who finished second at Birkdale in 2008. "I turned up at 10 Sunday night and had a little look on the 18th green; security guards came out, said, 'What are you doing, what are you doing, get off.' I said, 'It's OK, I'm playing.' So that was my first look, and then I got escorted off in a wagon. So that was nice."

With practice rounds in the memory bank, the golfers have labeled it "very much a tee-shot golf course" (Casey) and saying it "seems like you're penalized more for your off-line shots" (fourth-ranked Kenny Perry) and a "ball-striker's" course (Woods), evidenced by the towering quality of the past Open winners plus one very-near-miss runner-up from 1977 (Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Jack Nicklaus).

Woods rated those "among the best ball-strikers of all time," and said, "You just can't fake it around this golf course," especially with rough gone lush in good rain and featuring not only gorse but also yarrow, knapweed and lesser stitchwort, among other nuisances.

With his knee no longer screaming and his driving accuracy vaulting upward through his past three events - with the Memorial glowing in particular as he hit all 14 fairways - Woods returns to the British Open to do some driving, even if his caddy, Steve Williams, does all the driving in their car, given his New Zealand left-side experience.

Already, Woods comprehends one thing about Turnberry. "You have to make sure you really know what you're doing out there, especially with the crosswinds in some of these fairways where they're slanted," he said. "And you've got to hit some really good shots, and you've got to understand why the last three champions are some of the best ball-strikers. You have to do that here."

138th British Open

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Turnberry (Ailsa Course)

Length: 7,204 yards Par: 35-35-70

Defending champion: Padraig Harrington

Last year: Harrington became the first European in more than a century to win back-to-back at the British Open. He shot a 32 on the back nine at Royal Birkdale to close with a 1-under-par 69 and win by four shots over Ian Poulter.

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