By Leonard Shapiro
There was a time, before the 14 major championships, before the 74 PGA Tour wins, before the knee and Achilles injuries, before the changes in swing coaches, before the scandal and the divorce, when Tiger Woods needed a boost in confidence.
This was 1996, and Woods was in the process of deciding whether and when to turn professional. Then along came the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annesthe same venue for the 2012 Openand Woods got his answer.
It came first in the second round, when he fired a superb 66 on his way to a tie for 22nd in the tournament, tying the low score ever posted in the event by an amateur golfer.
That gave me so much confidence, Woods told reporters last week. At the time, it gave me the confidence I could do it at a high level. The fact that I shot that low I had seven birdies in a 12-hole stretchI thought for an amateur in a major championship, that was a big step.
Woods would go on to turn pro later that summer, and of course, the rest is truly golf history as he set off on a journey that now leads him back to England and the same brutally difficult Lytham links off the Irish Sea.
Woods seems to be moving in all the right directions these days, despite several missed cuts this season, the latest at the Greenbrier when he insisted he wasnt playing all that badly. Hes now the leading money-winner on the PGA Tour with 4.2 million in earnings. He leads the FedEx Cup standings and is a shoo-in to make the 2012 American Ryder Cup team on points in a season when his three victories are also the most wins on the tour.
But once again, Royal Lytham could very well be shaping up as the venue that provides that one more added boost of confidence that gets Woods back to winning major championships. He hasnt done that since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. And over those four years, 15 different players have won the 16 majors contested over that time span.
There is no question that Woods is no longer the player who once dominated the game like few if any others in the long and storied history of the sport. But he is certainly showing signs that the latest set of swing changes designed to take the pressure off his aching knee are starting to kick in and become just as natural as the old swings.
If hes playing well, hes better than anyone else in the field, Curtis Strange, now an ESPN commentator, said in a conference call last week. If hes not, hes average. It depends on which Tiger shows up. When Tiger is near on his game, he has more strengths than anybody else.
In addition to the possibility of getting closer to Jack Nicklauss record 18 major titles, Woods has another delectable incentive this week. If he prevails at Lytham, he almost certainly will be the player of the year and perhaps even more significant, he will return to the No. 1 position in the world rankings, a spot hes became so accustomed to occupying for so long.
Hes now No. 4, behind No. 1 Luke Donald, No. 2 Rory McIlory and No. 3 Lee Westwood. All three of those players will be among the rooting favorites of the English crowds, particularly 44-year-old Westwood who now holds the dubious distinction of being the best player in the world never to win a major.
Westwood has been bothered in recent weeks by a nagging groin injury. McIlroy keeps missing cuts, and Donald didnt sound like a man who fancies his chances last week when he spoke to reporters at the Scottish Open.
Ive realized that I do get a bit more anxious, a bit more uptight (at major championships) and Ive got to try and control that, he said. Thats going to be the prioritygo out there and try to play with a bit more fun and hopefully thats the key to getting off to a better start. And once I get off to a better start, I feel like Im going to be there and have a better chance.
Donald and everyone else will have to do it on a difficult course protected by 205 nasty bunkers, the most of any venue on the Open rotation. A wet summer has also made the rough brutally difficult, so much so that Woods said last week that bottom six inches, in some places its almost unplayable. Ive never seen the rough this thick and dense.
Defending Open champion Darren Clarke, also offered an ominous warning about all those bunkers.
Its just a nightmare, he said. They are very penal. Theres going to be occasions here this week when I think youre going to see guys taking penalty drops out of them because they wont be able to move their ball anywhere. Accuracy is going to be key this week. Its not really length off the tee. Its keeping it on the fairways and keeping out of those bunkers.
Woods says he likes the layout.
Its fair, he said recently. They dont have to trick it up. They dont have to do anything with it. They can play it as the members play it and it would still be difficult.
How much pressure Woods puts on himself will also be a major factor, according to Paul Azinger.
Its gotten to the point where he was so good, you didnt even look at Tiger as human anymore, he said. But he still feels the pressure like everyone else. He got more comfortable with it because hes in contention more often, but its real pressure, and he feels it. Hes human. He feels it like everybody else; he just dealt with it better.