For Tiger Woods the 2006 Open Championship was the perfect storm. Or, to be meteorologically accurate, the convergence of no storms – the antithesis of the traditional English summer – and a game ripe for a surgical strike as opposed to the normal fare of carpet bombing.
In the weeks leading up to the ’06 championship an unseasonably dry summer cooked Hoylake to a golden hue and when Woods arrived on the Wirral peninsula the ancient links had a distinct Royal Yellow Brick Road feel.
Think Pinehurst before the USGA made brown the new green in grand slam lexicon.
Almost immediately, the man who had forged a Hall of Fame career overpowering golf courses clued into the reality that this Open would be different.
“He hit driver off (No.) 1 and driver off (No.) 3 (in practice) and it never came out again,” Hank Haney, Woods’ swing coach at the time, said. “He was determined to just have no penalty shots, hitting sideways out of a bunker is essentially a one-stroke penalty. If you hit driver it is virtually impossible to avoid some penalty shots.”
He would actually hit driver once more during the tournament proper, but it was obvious the big stick was not required.
With a precision that, in retrospect, bordered on the surreal, Woods picked apart the parched turf with long irons and an artist’s touch, hitting 48 of 56 fairways for the week (first in the field) and 58 of 72 greens in regulation (T-2) for 72 holes.
Maybe even more impressive was Woods’ ability to plod his way around the dusty dunes hitting into just three of Hoylake’s 82 bunkers the entire week.
By comparison, at Woods’ 2000 U.S. Open masterpiece, which he won by 15 strokes and is widely considered the quintessential boat-race victory of his career, he hit 41 of 56 fairways (14th in the field) and 51 of 72 greens in regulation (first).
As masterful as Woods’ dismantling of Royal Liverpool was, it was a strategy born more from necessity than nuanced planning.
“Tiger’s strategy in ’06 was all his own,” Haney said. “(The) media hailed it as genius, but it was the only strategy he had, he didn't like driver back then and he clearly likes it less now.”
To Haney’s point, Woods began the week ranked 179th in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour in ’06 and arrived this week in the exact same spot.
But if necessity is the mother of invention, Woods’ decision to play small ball fed off what he did best, if not his ego. By taking driver out of his hands, the yellow pitch forced him to reinvent the wheel for all the right reasons.
“The problem for the field was Tiger was the only one that was long enough and had the stinger shot,” Haney said. “The strategy put emphasis on his middle to long irons and his lag putting, arguably the two biggest strengths of his game. The strategy was a no-brainer and the media called it brilliant.”
This time, however, it doesn’t appear Mother Nature will cooperate. According to various reports, Hoylake is playing lush by comparison to how the course played in ’06, which will likely necessitate a more aggressive approach off the tee.
“With the absence of a stinger shot and a much softer course it will be interesting to see his strategy,” said Haney, who split with Woods in 2010. “If he has to hit woods it will be tough for him, people forget that ’06 was arguably Tiger's greatest ballstriking week ever, it was about much more than just strategy.”
Eight years ago Royal Liverpool marked Woods’ 400th week at No. 1 in the world, and he closed the season with back-to-back major victories. He will start this Hoylake Open seventh in the world with a rebuilt back and rusty game and 19 major starts removed from his last Grand Slam triumph.
The former world No. 1 returned to the Tour earlier then he expected at last month’s Quicken Loans National, where he missed the cut following back surgery on March 31, and this week’s Open will be his first major since last year’s PGA Championship.
If the Quicken Loans National was a rehab start of sorts it was with an eye toward the Open, and he conceded his return to Hoylake would not be a sequel.
“I'm very excited to get there. Excited to play that golf course. I don't know how it's changed since we played it,” said Woods, who was informed the layout was on the greener side of Pinehurst.
“Lush? That's very different than what we played. When we played it and it was hard and fast and it was brown. So we'll see what happens when we get there.”
When Woods arrived in northwest England on Saturday there were no storms, perfect or otherwise, only questions about his game, his health and how he will play Hoylake this time.