“It’s my favourite course in the world.”
Tiger Woods is back on familiar and happy turf for the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews – 27 years on from his first appearance at the home of golf when Boom Boom Boom by The Outhere Brothers was topping the charts – and it would be a brave person to predict what we will see from the 15-time major champion.
In 1995 he finished tied-68th as an amateur, taking in the unique nature of the Old Course for battles ahead. He conquered it in 2000 and again in 2005, but the 2022 iteration of the Tiger is a different beast.
At 46, the body is creaking and he walks like a man double his age. No surprise, given he almost lost a leg in a car crash in February 2021.
The best medical treatment money can buy saved the leg, but 16 months on and the limp is noticeable and picking a tee peg out of the ground is an effort.
Woods’ schedule this year has been buggy golf with his friends and his son, and two major championships. He’s likely still lethal at buggy golf, where walking is not a concern, and the competitive hunger means in the blink of an eye he’d take his son’s pocket money off him in an 18-hole match play contest.
But without the buggy, he managed 47th at the Masters and a DNF at the US PGA Championship.
St Andrews and a smattering of other Links courses aside, Augusta is the one course Woods can still contend at on one leg. There were promising signs in the first round of the Masters as he finished four off the lead after 18 holes. But walking took a toll and he was more and more uncomfortable as the tournament progressed. It was uncomfortable viewing at times as picking the ball out of the hole drew a grimace, as did the yomp around the Georgia countryside.
A shade over a month later at the US PGA, he looked no fitter. If anything he appeared to have regressed, albeit Southern Hills was a brute of a walk and it came as no surprise when he withdrew after three rounds.
Two months on and judged on his practice round on Sunday, there is no improvement in his leg. Woods is not one to give much away, so he is unlikely to divulge the extent of his issues but the burning question is whether there is light at the end of the tunnel.
At 46, the tunnel is certainly narrowing. It could close this week, but we have seen Woods pull off sporting miracles before.
He won the 2008 US Open despite a serious knee injury that required reconstructive surgery a few days later. In beating Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole play-off, Woods showed iron will and he produced it again to win the Masters in 2019. He appeared done, the body shot and his air of invincibility broken, but he came back to win again.
After winning his 14th major at the US Open in 2008 and looking certain to beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18, everything stopped. His personal life was in turmoil and body breaking down.
Back injuries became a problem for Woods but his fourth operation – fusion surgery – gave him a new lease of life and he stunned the golfing world when winning the 2019 Masters. The invincible air had gone, but there was an inevitability on the back nine on Sunday that as soon as he got a sniff of the Green Jacket, he would take it.
Woods was back. Then he was gone again, with a car crash nearly claiming his life.
Woods can still get the ball out there, and his knowledge of St Andrews where two of his three Opens have been won, means he will not be disgraced.
With St Andrews not set to host the event until at least 2027, this is likely to be his final competitive appearance at the home of golf.
Win, lose or honourable also-ran, what Woods has done for the game means he deserves that final walk over the Swilcan Bridge and up the hallowed 18th.
Will it be for the final time? Maybe, but don’t count out the comeback king.
He’s back again, but this time it does feel different – like an ageing rocker on a farewell world tour.