LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – With a modicum of creative license one could say it all began here on the Lancashire coast for Tiger Woods.
No, the 1996 Open Championship was not his first start in the game’s oldest soiree – that would have been a year earlier at St. Andrews – but it was here on the Irish Sea where the rail-thin prodigy posted a 5-under 66 on Day 2 on his way to a tie for 22nd and low-amateur honors.
“That was a pretty great accomplishment,” said Woods on Tuesday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes without a hint of hyperbole. “From that it pushed me towards turning pro versus going back to college.”
The rest, as they say, is a rewritten history book. Fourteen majors, three claret jugs and an affinity – at times unrequited but always there – for links golf followed.
So it is that without much prompting one could imagine a new beginning this week at Lytham, at least in major championship terms. Woods is 0-for-his-last-12 Grand Slam starts since his historic 2008 U.S. Open triumph, but given this week’s “English summer” forecast Lytham seems as appropriate a place as any to stem the drought.
What better place to pick up his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors than the same bouncy ground that filled Woods with confidence and prompted him to bolt Stanford early?
Not that Woods seems fixated on No. 15, particularly after three PGA Tour victories this season and steady, if not solid, performances at the year’s first two majors (T-40 at the Masters and T-21 at the U.S. Open).
“If I continue to put myself there enough times then I’ll win major championships,” said Woods, dismissing the idea that there is a growing sense of urgency to get off the Grand Slam schnied. “I had to go through that whole process and just being healthy again. Being banged up and missing major championships because of it in a couple-year stretch there wasn’t a whole lot of fun.”
For the first time in some time Woods’ words ring without a hint of false bravado. No more is the Sean Foley-inspired action a work in progress. Although there is a lack of consistency that once defined his greatness – in his last nine Tour starts he has three ‘Ws,’ two missed cuts, including his last outing at the Greenbrier Classic, and a withdrawal – there is an undercurrent of success that suggests he’s closer to championship competency than he has been in some time.
But the most telling sign he’s closer to the end of the developmental process than the beginning can be found in the World Ranking math. For the first time since the 2011 Masters Woods arrives at a major with a chance to reclaim the top spot in the ranking.
That said major is on the type of links layout that historically brings out Woods’ creative best can only feed his inner Michelangelo.
Consider Woods’ answer when asked which of Lytham’s ubiquitous bunkers should be avoided this week, “all of them.” That would be 205 pitted round killers, to be exact, which immediately conjures memories of Royal Liverpool and the 2006 Open, which Woods won with clinical precision.
Hitting just one driver all week at Hoylake, Woods bunted his way around and over all but a single bunker on his way to claret jug No. 3. Although he quickly dismissed the comparisons, pointing out how wet Lytham is for this week’s championship, the wheels were clearly turning for the inner tactician.
“It’s not exactly the same game plan,” Woods said when asked to compare Hoylake to Lytham. “You have to hit probably a few more 3-woods and drivers here. This is different. The bunkers are staggered differently here. There’s some forced carries to where you have to force it and then stop it or try and skirt past them.”
Woods referred to this plan as a “plod,” which would be an apropos take on where he is in his quest for major No. 15. If age and injury are beginning to weigh on him it’s not showing.
Even with a 36-year-old knee that is going on 66 Woods remains content with the long view, and for good reason. This slice of English coast is, after all, where the seeds of stardom received a competitive B12 injection back in ’96.
“That (second-round 66 in 1996) gave me so much confidence that I could do it at a high level . . . I could play against the top players in the world on a very difficult track,” he said.
A perfect place for a new beginning.