Golf: St Andrews could save Tiger's tail

By Paul Lewis

He's not the same man - and he is definitely not the same player - but somehow the British Open will still be all about Tiger Woods when it begins next week.

The Open moves back to St Andrews on Friday (NZT), an enormously happy hunting ground for Woods (he won it the last two times it was held here, in 2000 and 2005, well clear of the field) and it may be that even his poor recent form - for him - is less of a factor.

If so, it may be just the release and the relief Woods needs to regain the aura of the world's best player.

The enduring fascination is with Woods and his so far unsatisfactory return to the competitive arena since the drama of his sex scandal and US$100 million keep-your-bimbos-away-from-my-kids divorce from wife Elin.

He returned with that wonderful effort to finish fourth at the Masters in April. He threatened for some time - and it would have been perhaps the biggest comeback in sporting history if he'd won that tournament, amid all that pressure.

Since then, not so good.

He was cut at Quail Hollow, withdrew from the prestigious Players Championship at Sawgrass with a sore neck before recovering to come 19th at the Memorial Tournament and then fourth at the US Open - although he never really threatened as he did at Augusta.

He then came 46th at the AT&T National, the tournament he used to host but at which he was a mere entry. AT&T were one of the sponsors which dumped him after his sexual shenanigans hit the headlines.

Everywhere he goes, it seems, the scandal lingers; the reminders persist; the stain refuses to fade. He is only 74th on the US PGA money list, admittedly from only six of the 29 tournaments held so far this season.

Just this week, at a special appearance at a pro-am in Ireland, Woods ran into another factor that will only add to the pressure at St Andrews - the British media.

At a sometimes terse and icy press conference, Woods batted away questions concerning his personal life, including the have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife-type inquiry whether his personal life "had been worth it". Quite what anyone is supposed to say to that is not clear.

However, he will get more of that at St Andrews. The British media are not prone to swimming in the other direction when they smell blood in the water. Woods will not be protected by Augusta's snobbery and media-vetting. The galleries and fans will be welcoming; the media will be waiting.

Add to that the fact that he has been driving well and playing beautifully tee to green but making some excruciating, club-golfer mistakes chipping and putting - the most important part of the game at any major - and there's no way he can win, right?

Well ... this is St Andrews. It's a links course and he loves it. The greens are like lightning and players who can work the ball close (and manufacture ways out of tight spots) are rewarded.

Woods is good at that and the likely slippery nature of the greens means his current wayward putting might not be quite such a factor. His confidence may grow.

He has also been using a new ball to which he is still getting used. It helps with length and direction off the tee but not with spin and holding greens. But if he gets that right, St Andrews may indeed seem of saintly dimensions to him.

It all comes back to pressure and Woods seems to be dealing with this in a very different way since his return. The player of stern countenance and silence on course, freezing out those he played with, has been seen talking to and even joking with opponents. He used to largely ignore fans, now he stops and chats occasionally.

A charm offensive, yes, but his aura of invincibility - where have we heard that before? - seems to have slipped. Tiger's teeth have been filed down; his claws retracted.

That's why this Open is so important and why it is so fortunate it is back at St Andrews. If he misses here, there must be some doubt Woods will add to his tally of 14 majors - or maybe only sporadically.

He's been stuck on 14 (Jack Nicklaus has 18) for two years now. St Andrews looms as a palliative; maybe the lancing of the boil.

The other contenders

If not Tiger, who? Another pointer to a bold Woods showing is that few others in this field have done well at St Andrews. Padraig Harrington is always a threat in this major but Lee Westwood, the hottest British golfer right now, has a leg injury that could curtail him anyway and also finished 81st and 64th in his last two Open outings at St Andrews. Those who could tame the Tiger include:

* Ernie Els - In good form; likes St Andrews too.

* Phil Mickelson - Patchy form but has the game to do well here.

* Graeme McDowell - US Open winner; hits it short and straight, good putter; just what might be required here too.

* Tim Clark - Steady form, good links golfer, also straight hitter.

* Ian Poulter - Has been threatening a while and can do it here.

* Justin Rose - In outstanding form on the PGA Tour; this is harder.

- Herald on Sunday

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