ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — As Tiger Woods paced around the front of the Old Course’s 18th green on Tuesday, he carried an unusual weapon: 4-iron.
Woods spread out a handful of his Bridgestone golf balls some 20 to 40 yards in front of the putting surface. He walked from one to another to another, sending each ball skittering across the surface of the turf, through the Valley of Sin, over the large swale guarding the front edge and up onto the green, where they’d trickle to a stop. Woods tested different angles. He hit to different theoretical hole locations. He watched carefully to see how the ball reacted to the slopes and how it broke once it neared its destination.
And the ball never left the ground.
“The fairways, I think right now, are faster than the greens,” he said later, gleefully.
If Woods is to turn back the clock this week at St. Andrews, that firm ground will be the key. It’s midsummer in Scotland and the area has been light on rain, which means the sepia-toned turf has plenty of fire. For reference: On my ride into town from the Edinburgh airport, my cab driver proudly explained that while his drives typically travel 240 yards, this summer he’s been regularly hitting 300.
Woods gets that. “With the fairways being fast and firm, it allows players who are older to run the ball out there and have a chance,” he said. (He was not specifically referring to Jonathan, my cabbie.)
That’s the duality of hard ground. Firm turf means bombers can drive it greenside on several of St. Andrews’ par-4s. But it can also neutralize distance off the tee, sending pummeled drives to dubious endings and rewarding precision over brute force. The gorse looms, as do the pot bunkers. Instead, it’s on second shots that the firm turf often serves as a separator. Who has the best control of his irons and wedges? Who has the creativity to navigate the areas around greens?
“It’s going to be a game of chess this week,” said Rory McIlroy on Tuesday, asked about Woods’ chances to contend. “No one’s been better at playing that sort of chess game on a golf course than Tiger over the last 20 years.”
Woods has been keen to practice moving his pawns. He arrived in St. Andrews on Saturday and walked the course with Justin Thomas, carrying just a few clubs and working on short-game shots around the greens, finding his feels. They were out until dark, Woods and Thomas and a hundred some-odd spectators watching from a (mostly) respectful distance. He relished the opportunity.
“It’s one of the neat things about coming out here. I stay at the Old Course Hotel, and I’ve gone out and putted a lot at nine o’clock at night,” Woods said. “It’s neat to experience [golf on Saturday night], and to go out there with J.T., he’s like my little brother. We just went out there and just had a great time.”
Woods delights in the unique demands of links tests. His eyes lit up describing a 7-iron landing and running 40 yards. And then again when he described hitting a 6-iron from 120 yards on Tuesday, as he was playing the 10th hole into the wind.
“It was blowing so hard. You just don’t have opportunities to hit shots like that anywhere else,” he said. That’s a theme of the challenge here: different shots.
Woods played alongside Lee Trevino on Monday in the Celebration of Champions. Trevino, a two-time Open Champ, is 82 now. He took full advantage of the ground, scooting tee shots down the center and watching them bound forward. He said he expects some aggressive players to hit driver everywhere, a strategy that should yield birdies as well as big numbers.
“This golf course is easy if you do everything perfect,” Trevino said. “But if you’re a little off with an iron or a driver, this course is a booga-bear.”
He echoed McIlroy’s sentiment that Woods could contend, given his level of ball-striking.
“Tiger has no problem hitting it,” he said. “It’s the walking that’s the problem.”
That’s the other element of the St. Andrews ground that benefits Woods, who is still in the relatively early stages of his recovery after shattering his foot in a terrifying car crash in early 2021. Unlike Augusta National and Southern Hills, his first two tournament tests of the year, St. Andrews has no real hills. That’s mostly good news, but don’t mistake a lack of elevation gain for “flat.” There’s not much flat ground on this property.
“It’s still not easy,” he said of the walk. “The inclines are not steep in any way. The declines are not steep. But it’s the unevenness that is still difficult on me. I have a lot of hardware in my leg. So it is what it is. It’s going to be difficult.”
He added that he has gotten “a lot stronger” since the PGA Championship, when he withdrew due to injury after a third-round 79.
Woods is 46 years old and deeply aware of the passage of time. He referenced history repeatedly throughout his remarks to the press on Tuesday. He pointed out that the beginning of his professional career coincided with the rise of the internet. “I saw Bob Charles out there on 18 hitting. I think he won in ’63 or something like that,” he added. “Just to be able to see that in person, live — God, it was just so special. I just hope the kids appreciate that.”
He also acknowledged that the end of his competitive golfing career is coming sooner rather than later. While he dismissed any retirement talk, he admitted this could be the last time he plays St. Andrews with a chance to win.
“I don’t know how many Open Championships I have left here at St Andrews, but I wanted this one,” he said. “It started here for me in ’95, and if it ends here in ’22, it does.”
Still, he’d like to end things in style. This is his favorite golf course in the world, after all. He referenced St. Andrews as “hallowed grounds.”
Tiger Woods on hallowed grounds. And firm ground. Safe to say he has our attention.