Woods has earned the right to be flip, but the fact remains that his streaky putting could be his downfall next week. According to Price, "Putting is the hardest part of St. Andrews. It's very easy to hit all 18 greens there and still shoot 75." The grainy, sunbaked, windswept greens on the Old Course cover a total of six acres, and they are so outsized that while playing the 5th hole during the 1970 Open, Lee Trevino, fighting for the lead, mistakenly aimed at the wrong flag on the double green.
Compounding the difficulty is that many of the greens are elevated, making them susceptible to gusts of wind. During the final round of that '70 Open the wind blew in excess of 50 mph. "Preparing to play your putt," Nicklaus wrote in a first-person piece in SI, "you did not study the contours of the green; instead, you checked the wind." Even so, Nicklaus—arguably the best clutch putter ever—had five three-putts during that round, including one on the 72nd hole.
Nicklaus's subsequent victory is noteworthy because it illustrates the learning curve all players must go through on the idiosyncratic Old Course. At his first British Open there, in 1964, Nicklaus arrived at the height of his powers yet finished five strokes behind the winner, Tony Lema. Nicklaus stubbornly tried to play a fade off every tee, even into a left-to-right wind. In '70 Nicklaus shaped his shots both ways and hit 69 of 72 greens in regulation.
"The first tournament you play over there is basically a sacrifice," says Janzen, as Woods would also find out as a long-and-wrong amateur at the '95 British Open. He started respectably, 74-71-72, then shot 78 in a gale to finish 68th. Woods calls that first taste "an awesome experience." He returned to St. Andrews in October 1998 for the Dunhill Cup, just as his swing changes were beginning to coalesce. He opened 66-70-66, then went three under through the first 10 holes of his final round. Had it been a regular medal-play tournament, he would have been 20 under, six ahead of the field. Woods bogeyed the 11th and 12th holes, then missed a six-footer for par on the Road Hole to fall a stroke behind Spain's Santiago Luna, his opponent that day in the medal-match format. On the 72nd hole Woods drove into the Valley of Sin in front of the green, but blew a four-footer for birdie, losing the match and bouncing the U.S. from the competition.
Woods obviously is a different player now, but that Dunhill shows not only how low he could go at the Old Course, but also how quickly fortunes can change on that unpredictable track. "A lot of your success at the British Open comes down to a roll of the dice," says Bill Glasson, who was leading the '95 Open until he hit the St. Andrews Hotel with his tee ball on the Road Hole in the second round. "The first two days you've got a 10-hour block of tee times and the weather can change dramatically, so you can really get screwed. With Tiger a lot will depend on the weather. If it's dry leading up to the tournament and throughout that week, then the course plays hard and fast, just the way Pebble did, and he wins by 10. If it's wet and soft, that brings a lot of guys into the picture, because it doesn't take as much skill to score in those conditions." Pause, followed by a chuckle. "Then he only wins by two or three."
Price points to the benign conditions at the Open at the Old Course in '90, when the flagsticks were limp for all four days. Nick Faldo, a short hitter, rode pinpoint accuracy and a flawless game plan to a winning score of 18-under 270, up to that point the second lowest in the tournament's august history. If Faldo's bland robotics are the polar opposite of Woods's artistic improvisation, perhaps there is something to be learned there, too. "You hear a lot of talk about the Old Course being a freewheeler's course, but it also demands incredible discipline," says Price. "There are many times when you have a sand wedge in your hand and you absolutely have to aim away from the flag."
Woods's aggressiveness, a balky putting stroke, unpredictable conditions—any or all could sabotage his bid for history. Yet he hardly seems stressed by the possibilities. On Sunday evening he boarded a plane with Allenby, Appleby, Janzen, David Duval, Rocco Mediate and Mark O'Meara for Ireland and his annual pre-Open sojourn. Bally-bunion, Royal County Down and Waterville are on the itinerary, but, says Woods, "We try not to let the golf get in the way of our fishing."
The trip, while relaxing, also serves as a reintroduction to links golf, which Woods loves. "Every minute of it," he says. "Just to be able to play so many different lands of shots ..." His words trail off dreamily.
One of the most memorable shots of Woods's links career came at the Old Course, during the final round of the '95 British. On the 6th hole he found himself 40 yards shy of the front of the green, playing into the teeth of the wind. After examining his many options, Woods whipped out his putter and rolled his ball to within 10 feet of the cup, setting up a most unusual up-and-down. "I've told that story so many times," Woods said last week, though he showed plenty of enthusiasm in another retelling. It seems with Woods some things never get old.
Winning, for instance. So, will he or won't he? Our guess is that he will.