Woods keeps focus on golf: ‘Great out here today.’
AP Sports Columnist
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) – The tabloids over here banged the drum steadily for the better part of a week, hoping to guarantee Tiger Woods a much rowdier reception on this side of the Atlantic than he’s received so far back home.
Didn’t work. The best stunt anyone managed all day was pulled off by three young women behind the gallery ropes at No. 3 who shed their coats in a light rain to reveal sleeveless Tiger-print blouses just as their prey stepped onto the tee.
You might think their inspiration was yet another headline in one of the papers Thursday morning: “Troubled Tiger Needs Support of the Crowd, Now More Than Ever.” But no. Turns out the blouses, as well as the tickets, were provided by an Irish bookie seeking some publicity on the cheap.
Two other tabloids, meanwhile, fretted about Woods’ “mental frailty” and his decision to change putters. Just like the women, Woods ignored the papers, too.
He made his way around St. Andrews in near-perfect conditions – steady drizzle, the gentlest of breezes – and shot 67. That left him four strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy, and pleased with the state of his game, his new putter and especially his reception.
“They’ve always been respectful and enthusiastic here,” Woods said, referring to the galleries. “There’s no reason it would be any different. They were great out there today.”
Woods was very good, making five birdies to offset a lone bogey, but by his exacting standards, not great. He also had trouble again closing out what could have been a great round, missing a 4-footer for par at the 17th and a 10-footer for birdie at the 18th, both after brilliant lag putts over humps and hollows from off the green.
“It’s getting better every week,” Woods said. “Every week I’m playing, the things I’ve been working on have been starting to come together. I’m hitting shots that I haven’t hit in a long time. It’s building.”
Woods has never gone more than seven tournaments to start a season without winning at least once and this British Open marks his seventh event. On top of that, expectations couldn’t be much higher. He’s won the Open the last two times it was held at St. Andrews, including a record-setting performance in 2000.
Yet the longer his winless streak stretches, the easier it becomes for the focus to shift away from his golf and back to his recently checkered past. That was the case Tuesday in the interview room, where more than half the questions thrown at Woods sought to delve into his marital woes and his ties to a Canadian doctor accused of distributing a human growth hormone.
He begged off queries about Dr. Anthony Galea by citing an ongoing FBI investigation, and deflected questions about his personal life by saying, “I’m trying to become a better player and a better person.”
Yet as much as Woods has tried to tamp down interest in his behavior away the course, he’s made no secret of his desire to get back his groove on it.
He played a practice round Sunday when even the seagulls were walking – gusts approached 50 mph – then went out again to sharpen his game the next two days with the wind blowing in different directions. But the weather for the opening half of the draw was so good, he needed only so many of those shots in the first round.
The Old Course offers players good looks at the pins from several different routes, which means that the usual statistical measures – fairways hit or greens in regulation, for example – don’t always tell the complete story. Woods hit the ball laser-straight off the tees, including nearly every time he hit what has been his unreliable driver. He also appeared comfortable solving the quirky challenges that links golf presents, whether it required flighting his approach shots left or right, low or high, or manufacturing delicate shots into the greens.
If Woods’ life remains unsettled, it’s showing less and less in his play. Close pal Mark O’Meara thinks all the pieces are in place once more and all that’s left is for Woods to put them back together.
He pointed out that Woods had already finished tied for fourth in the season’s first two majors, the Masters and U.S. Open, “and he wasn’t close to being on his game.
“He’s not all there, mentally, but his game is coming back,” O’Meara added. “I told him, ‘You can have all the fame, all the money, all the victories, but when your personal life is mixed up, none of that matters. Life is short and you want it to be happy.”‘
Right about now, few things would make Woods happier than another claret jug for the trophy case back home, no matter where that turns out to be.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke (at) ap.org