From the hunted to the hunter - Woods seeks fourth Claret Jug
When Tiger Woods last visited Carnoustie he was on top of the world; supposedly unbeatable and seemingly infallible.
A two-defending champion and three-time Champion Golfer of the Year, the American arrived on Scotland’s east coast as comfortably the game’s best and with history in his sights.
Not since Peter Thomson had a player won three straight Claret Jugs and Woods was the heavy favourite to emulate the Australian, who claimed his hat-trick at Royal Liverpool in 1956.
Woods, as always, went close. He tied for 12th with the links course, and the field, getting the better of him as Padraig Harrington held off Sergio Garcia for victory.
But no matter. Woods’ fans had no reason to doubt the Claret Jug would soon be in his arms again, especially after he won a 13th major at the PGA Championship a month later.
However, when he enters the Carnoustie gates once more in 2018 he will find a golf landscape that is completely transformed and he is far from the only star in town.
The second half of Woods’ career has been blighted by injury. The knee, back, ankle and neck have all caused him problems in recent years and had to be nursed back to health.
His triumph at the 2008 US Open is regarded as one of the most incredible acts of resilience and endurance ever seen in sport, considering he competed in the play-off with a torn ACL in his left knee.
That took almost a year to heal and cost him a place at Royal Birkdale for The 137th Open Championship.
But his latest ailment was the most serious by far. Woods’ back has creaked and groaned for years, affecting his swing and draining his confidence.
So eventually he took time off to get it sorted with fusion surgery and only when he returned from a 12-month lay-off this year did the full extent of the damage and the risk become known.
In April, he said: “When they explained the fusion surgery to me I thought that was it, that I was going to have a nice, comfortable life but that I would never swing the club like I could speed-wise.”
Fortunately, though he is pain-free and the signs are that he can compete at the very top once again.
Woods returned tentatively in December last year but he has gradually ramped it up since, with the ball booming down the fairway and the irons finding their mark as accurately as they always did.
A tied-23rd finish at the Farmers Insurance Open was encouraging in January and within two months he was back in winning contention, finishing in a tie for second at the Valspar Championship.
After that near miss, he said: "I was close. I had a chance [to win]. Unfortunately I just didn't quite feel as sharp as I needed to with my irons, played a little conservative because of it.”
A solid Masters at Augusta was followed by more progress at The Memorial before a missed cut at the US Open – with a common theme running through every tournament he’s played.
The Woods putter has not quite found its mark. The 20-foot putts, which once seemed routine, are now too often drifting by and at The National last month he opted to change his putter entirely.
The one which had sunk 13 major championship-winning putts was gone. Woods’ new piece of kit took a while to find its mark but he sunk 21 birdies at The National and is likely to use it at Carnoustie.
Woods’ two visits to Carnoustie have brought two top-15 finishes but he did not properly compete for the Claret Jug in either 1999 or 2007.
However, he has all the tools needed to tame the Scottish course.
At over 7,000 yards, it is one of the longest on The Open’s rota and only those assured off the tee can regularly be in the hunt for birdies.
Woods has always been one of the longest hitters but his inconsistent accuracy has often let him down.
He is currently 178th on the PGA Tour with less than 55 per cent driving accuracy but with an average of 304 yards there are just 25 players who have been striking it further.
“Carnoustie is an unbelievable driving golf course, you have to drive the ball well there, but it's a lot of different angles, so a lot of different crosswinds,” he said.
“I have to be able to manoeuvre the golf ball both ways there efficiently. You just have to hit the golf ball well.”
Strike the ball crisply off the tee, then Woods will be a force to be reckoned with. He has the 13th-best scoring average, 31st-best birdie average and his short game just off the green looks back to its best.
Woods has already surpassed expectations since returning to the tour late last year but a 15th major at Carnoustie would surely be the greatest achievement of his fine career.
And you would not back against him.
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