HOYLAKE, England — Eight years ago, when it was over, Tiger Woods buried his face into the shoulder of the burly man at his side and sobbed, the dusty brown golf course over which he had just prevailed spread out behind him. Woods was 30 years old and in perfect health, without peer in golf and sports, a husband but not yet a father.
Tuesday morning, Woods pulled a driver from his bag and thumped it down the green fairway at Royal Liverpool, then handed it to the man at his side, a different caddie. He is 38 and appearing in his first major championship of the year after a bad back forced him to miss the first two. He is a father twice over but no longer a husband. The death of his own father – which elicited those tears eight years ago – has settled in. And in the time since he won his last major – more than six years ago now – 19 men have accomplished what once appeared routine for Woods.
When the golf season began and the major championship venues were considered, Woods might have seemed to be a decent bet to march further forward. He won five tournaments in 2013, and has won four times at Augusta National, contended twice at Pinehurst (site of the U.S. Open), won the 2006 British Open here at Royal Liverpool and took the 2002 PGA Championship at Valhalla, which will host the year’s final major again next month.
Instead this is a summary of Woods’ golf season: 16 competitive rounds (just two in the past four months), one back surgery, and an inability to show up for either the Masters or the U.S. Open.
All of which raises the question: Eight years on from his tears into the shoulder of his then-caddie Steve Williams, can Woods realistically be expected to repeat his performance just because he’s on the same links along the River Dee?
“I had a good finish here, and eight years means nothing to having a good finish this week,” said Adam Scott, who replaced Woods as the world No. 1, finished tied for eighth in 2006 at Royal Liverpool, and now has Williams as his caddie. “It’s a completely different animal.”
Woods acknowledges as much. He has a different golf swing, and Joe LaCava replaced Williams on his bag nearly three years ago. Moreover, Royal Liverpool looks and feels much different than it did in 2006. Then, Woods hit just one driver over his 72 holes – in which he got to 18 under par and beat Chris DiMarco by two shots – because the course was all but burnt out, hard and fast and causing balls to run through the fairway. This week, it is comparatively lush, green in the fairways and more receptive on the greens.
“Different circumstances,” Woods said. “My life is very different than it was then. And then on top of that, this is a different golf course than we played in ’06.”
To say nothing of the state of the competition. Eight years ago, Masters champion Bubba Watson was a rookie on the PGA Tour who had played in just one major. U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer was playing on something called the European Player Development Tour and was still two years from playing in his first major. Rory McIlroy was 17 and vacationing in Spain with his parents after finishing a youth tournament.
Now, those three players have won two majors apiece. England’s Justin Rose won the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club and the Scottish Open in his past two starts, and he’s already a major champion. Henrik Stenson of Sweden was runner-up to Phil Mickelson in this event a year ago, won the FedEx Cup in the fall and will have a close-up view of Woods in the first two rounds, joining two-time major champ Angel Cabrera in Woods’ group.
“Depth of the field is probably stronger than what it was in 2006,” England’s Ian Poulter said. “Maybe Tiger is not quite as strong as what he was in 2006, but no one is going to write Tiger off until it’s over.”
When might it be over? The most redundant and pertinent questions put before Woods at majors used to pertain to his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 major championships. Tuesday, that came up in the form of how long he might keep pressing forward. Into his late 40s? Till he’s 50?
“Hopefully I have it done by then,” he said.
Maybe that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed: Woods’s outward confidence, which can spit in the face of results. His only competitive rounds since his March 31 back surgery came June 26-27 at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, the first two rounds of the Quicken Loans National. He shot 74-75 and missed the cut. For 2014 Woods, that’s a stride forward.
“Playing at Congressional was a big boost to me,” Woods said Tuesday. “The fact that I was able to go at it that hard and hit it like that with no pain. It wasn’t like that the previous time I played. … I’ve gotten stronger since then. I’ve gotten more explosive. I’ve gotten faster since then.”
That’s an improvement over the past two months, but what about the past eight years?
“It’s getting harder to win,” Woods said.
Once, Woods was better than anyone at blocking out all that surrounded him and prevailing. The Open’s return to Royal Liverpool this week show starkly how recapturing that ability as life marches on is decidedly elusive.