ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – This is for all practical purposes an old fashion love story, with a heavy focus on old.
From the first time Tiger Woods walked the ancient pitch at St. Andrews his affinity for the place was piqued and it’s only grown with time and titles.
“I’ve always loved the course from the first time I saw it in ’95,” he said on Tuesday at the Home of Golf.
The theme continued moments later when he was asked the basis for his affection. “I love the creativity,” he said. “You have to hit all kind of shots.”
For a player whose relationship status with the game of late could best be described as love/hate, those are strong words on the eve of the year’s third major.
It was here hard on the shores of the North Sea where Woods first etched his name into the claret jug in 2000 and he added his second Open Championship at the Old Course in 2005.
In five starts on the Old Course – four previous Opens at St. Andrews and the 1998 Alfred Dunhill Cup, which was a team event – his average finish is 21st place.
He was here in 1995 when Arnold Palmer took his last stroll across the iconic Swilcan Bridge. He was here when Jack Nicklaus made his Open current call in 2000 – and then again in ’05. He was here when the winds blew so strong in 2010 officials stopped play and in ’98 when the round was delayed because of frost.
For all the focus on Woods’ relationship with the Masters and Augusta National, where he has won four of his 14 Grand Slam tilts, it is St. Andrews where he has cemented his legacy.
It was a fondness that emerged immediately, when the then amateur ventured to his first Open in ’95. For most players, St. Andrews is an acquired taste – Bobby Jones tore up his scorecard after just 11 holes in his first start on the Old Course in 1921 but went on to earn the endearing nickname “Bonnie Bobby.” But for Woods it was love at first sight.
Not that he found the winding layout particularly easy considering his initial glimpse was very much a harsh introduction.
“I just happened to get the tide when it changed out there at the loop, so I played all 18 holes into the wind, and so I’ve always said it was the longest short golf course I’ve ever played in my life,” he recalled.
He quickly learned that the Cliff’s Notes take on the Old Course, which goes something like just hit it hard and left, was very much a misnomer. The nuances are much more subtle than that.
“You need to have the right angle,” said Woods, who arrived on Saturday in Scotland to begin his preparation for this week’s championship. “Over the years of learning how to play the golf course under all different types of wind conditions, it changes greatly, and it’s based on angles.”
The ninth hole, for example, is a microcosm of the Old Course’s ever-evolving complexities, with Woods explaining that the par 4 “is a driver all day.” Unless, of course, the wind shifts into, which requires a more measured layup short of the cross bunkers.
Even the seemingly simplest of elements is compounded at St. Andrews, as evidenced by Woods’ reaction when asked which is the hardest wind direction. “Depends on how hard it’s blowing,” he finally allowed after a long pause.
His affection for St. Andrews at least partially explained his confidence heading into just his eighth tournament of the season and after two of his worst starts on Tour as a professional.
Despite having almost as many rounds in the 80s (two) as he does in the 60s (three) in his last 10 competitive outings, Woods’ optimism was evident as he prepared for his 19th start at the game’s oldest championship.
Part of that improved outlook is born from his tie for 32nd in his last start at The Greenbrier Classic, where he led the field in proximity to the hole, and a swing that is much further along in the evolution of change than it was when he benched himself earlier this season.
“Being able to shape the golf ball not only both ways but also change my trajectories and being very comfortable changing my trajectories,” he said. “That’s something that I feel you have to do here on this golf course.”
But competitive baby steps aside, it’s less about improved versatility than it is this historic venue for Woods.
Woods, who turns 40 in December, has never been interested in sentimentality, opting instead to maintain his focus on the next shot, the next tournament, the next major. But on Tuesday he took a rare nostalgic turn when asked where his affinity for the Old Course is born?
“It’s brilliant how you can play it so many different ways,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play it one time before I die backwards. I want to play from (No.) 1 to 17, 2 to 16, so forth and so on. I’d love to be able to play it that way, just one time.”
For Woods, St. Andrews is a love story that endures.