Current tribulations momentarily swept aside, Tiger Woods couldn't resist a smile upon recalling his first encounter with the Old Course.
That took place 15 years ago, when the teenage wunderkind set out along the North Sea's periphery for a British Open practice round.
"The tide changed right when I was at the turn, so I played all 18 holes into the wind," he recalled recently.
Not an ideal labor, perhaps, but Woods always liked a challenge.
"Absolutely fell in love with the golf course," he said.
What Woods wouldn't give for a little comfort zone right now. Especially at St. Andrews — a place where small spheres have been swatted into holes for perhaps eight centuries but which now offers Woods a stage for something yet unseen:
Someone on the steps of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse for a third time to accept the claret jug. An Old Course three-peat.
"It's the greatest golf course in the world for me," said Woods, who won by eight shots there in 2000 and five in 2005.
Alas, those were different times.
Woods was embarking on runs of dominance on those occasions, making St. Andrews the second leg of his wraparound 2000-01 Grand Slam and using the 2005 Open as a showcase for the revamped swing that won four times in an eight-major span.
This summer, though, much of Woods' life seems topsy-turvy.
The sex scandal that prompted a tabloid feeding frenzy and sent him into seven weeks of counseling has died down, but his marriage appears finished and speculation swirls around the financials of a divorce settlement.
On the course, Woods is winless in six events since ending his sabbatical, matching the longest start-of-season drought of his career. Swing coach Hank Haney is gone, severing ties with his star client less than 36 hours after The Players Championship.
Woods did tie for fourth in the Masters and U.S. Open — showing flashes of the old magic at both stops – with nothing higher than 19th anywhere else. He has a missed cut (Quail Hollow), an injury withdrawal (The Players) and his first event since 1999 in which he went four rounds without breaking par (AT&T National).
"I'm sure we've all had distractions in our lives," said Justin Rose, twice a winner this year with Woods in the field. "To bring your best onto the golf course when you're being probably depleted in so many other areas mentally — it's difficult."
Before that November SUV wreck that brought multiple mistresses into headlines, 2010 had shaped up as an opportune stretch in Woods' pursuit to surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.
Three of this year's majors were scheduled for courses Woods has dominated: Augusta National (Masters), Pebble Beach (U.S. Open) and St. Andrews.
Now only the Old Course remains.
"My life out here on tour is becoming more normalized," Woods said a week ago on the way to tying for 46th in the AT&T National, "getting out here and talking to you guys about the game of golf."
Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist who helps several PGA Tour pros with their mental game, concurred that no golfer can block out every distracting thought during a 41/2-hour round.
It comes down, Valiante said, to blocking distractions for the 20 seconds it takes to set up and execute a shot — and then accepting the result.
"When you look at a young Tiger Woods, you saw an acceptance of whatever happened," he said. "Now you see the cursing and so forth. That's not him at his best."
Woods' best of 2010 came in a 12-hole stretch at Pebble Beach, keying a Saturday 66 that kept him within range of the leaders. But the consistency to do it over four rounds has eluded him.
"I've just got to be more consistent and string together more rounds like I did on Saturday at the Open," he said. "I'm starting to head in the right direction."
St. Andrews offers Woods those double-wide fairways, a boon for someone who has struggled with his driver. But what intrigues — and challenges — him is the hidden precision required to set up birdie chances.
"Once you start playing, you realize it's not that wide," he said. "To get the angles you need to have into these flags, it narrows up very quickly. And then you add wind."
No one has sidestepped trouble better than Woods in the last two Old Course Opens. He'll need to summon that magic again to complete the three-peat.
With Woods a 7-2 favorite in British betting houses, golf fans haven't ruled it out. Nor has Colin Montgomerie, Europe's Ryder Cup captain and runner-up to Woods five years ago at St. Andrews.
"He knows the course well enough," Montgomerie said. "If he brings that fantastic putting stroke of his to the course, he'll have every chance to win again."