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A New Man Was His Old Self
July 31, 2006
At 30 and no longer able to turn to his father for advice, Tiger Woods is a man in transition on and off the course. In winning his 11th major, at the British Open, he recaptured his magic touch and provided a glimpse into what's still to come--even as he dedicated his play to Pops
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July 31, 2006

A New Man Was His Old Self

At 30 and no longer able to turn to his father for advice, Tiger Woods is a man in transition on and off the course. In winning his 11th major, at the British Open, he recaptured his magic touch and provided a glimpse into what's still to come--even as he dedicated his play to Pops

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A path into the heart of golf, and into the head of a golfer. Six o'clock on Saturday night, merry old England time, several hours to sunset, weirdly warm and humid. By foot, leave the village of Hoylake, a prosperous suburb 15 miles west of Liverpool's Penny Lane, past the fishmonger and the news agent and the pubs. Make the short walk to the sweet-smelling privet hedge that marks the entrance to the Royal Liverpool Golf Club. (Free admission if you're under 16.) March over a playing field as flat as a sleeping sea, covered by a tarp of brown grass. Blow by Prince Andrew and George Clooney on your way to 17. And there, on a knobby old green first used in a British Open in 1897, take it all in: a hardworking golfer, having just missed a four-foot par putt, bent over in psychic pain. It is Tiger Woods, in transition.

At the Masters in April, playing for his dying father, Woods tried too hard and finished three shots behind the winner, Phil Mickelson. "First time I've ever seen him do that," his caddie, Steve Williams, said. Earl Woods died on May 3, and Tiger returned to golf at the U.S. Open in June, when he drove it crookedly, putted poorly and missed the cut. He had never done that before in a major, miss the weekend in 37 starts as a pro. Last week he was back in the Kingdom--he won at St. Andrews a year ago--trying to win the 11th major of his career, at age 30. His analysis of the chessboard of a course was deeply prudent and smart, and it made you think of Ted Williams reading a pitch or Joe Montana reading his receivers or Jack Nicklaus reading the competition.

At Hoylake it became obvious that Woods is seeing a world beyond the driving range. In public comments he referred to Elin, his bride of 21 months, as "my wife." ("I've never been to Italy; my wife's been there a bunch of times.") He extended his condolences to Chris DiMarco, whose mother died of a heart attack on July 4. He watched with sorrow TV clips that showed bombs and tanks and death in the Middle East. He's not living in a cocoon of golf anymore.

But the golf course is still his competitive proving ground, where for years he proved himself to his father, and now his father is gone. Last Saturday, on the 17th green, with his head over the hole, he muttered into it as if the offending jar could hear him, then left the green with his scorecard in his teeth. Tiger, you may know, is not a man prone to eccentric behavior, but with one bogey, with one misstep, he had let in the world. That's how it seemed, anyway.

By the end of Saturday's play, Sergio Garc´┐Ża of Spain, Ernie Els of South Africa and DiMarco, a Floridian by way of Long Island, were all one shot behind Woods. Tiger 2006 is not Tiger 2000. Six years ago he drove it scary straight and very long. With the putter he holed most everything. Players wilted when he was on the top of the leader board. Last week at Hoylake, through two rounds and 17 holes of a third, you couldn't predict anything. Tiger's year had had no form, no rhythm, and his father was no longer available for consults. You could only wonder, as the TV ads say of Phil: What will Tiger do next? And for whom?

Usually Woods spends time in Ireland the week before the Open, for fishing and golf and cards with Marko ( Mark O'Meara) and Cookie ( John Cook) and the boys. This year there was no trip to Ireland, and five days before the start of the championship he began his study of the Hoylake links, which has last hosted the Open in 1967. He knew nothing about the course, but after two practice holes he had something figured out. Putting the ball in the fairway bunkers, nearly perfect rings with vertical walls made of bricks of sod, meant bogey or worse. The choice, he realized, was to play iron off the tee short of them or driver over them. But his driver, on the parched fairways, was going 350 yards or longer. "How can you control a drive that goes 375 yards?" he asked. He knew the answer. On rock-hard fairways, you can't. Working with Williams and his swing coach, Hank Haney, a game plan was hatched.

Then came the opening bell, Thursday afternoon, 1st hole, par-4, 454 yards. Crooked iron off the tee and into the rough, a two-footer for par jammed through the break, an opening bogey. There's little in tournament golf as frustrating as making a bogey when you're trying to make a safe par. For many golfers, even the best players in the world, what you do on the first hole often sets the tone for the day. At the U.S. Open, Woods opened with a bogey and made another on 2 and another on 3. His Winged Foot start had to be somewhere in his head at Royal Liverpool, right?

Wrong. Last week he buried his first-hole hiccup and opened with a 67, five under par. His eagle putt on 18 was punctuated by one of those swift Woodsian fist pumps with jaw set, lips curled, eyes narrow--expressions that make Woods look positively fierce.

His second round was an exhibition in precision golf and included the longest shot he has ever holed in competition. On the 14th, 456 yards and into a slight breeze, he hit a two-iron off the tee (bunker avoidance, bunker avoidance) and a drawing, chasing four-iron from 212 yards that kissed the metal flagstick and disappeared for an eagle. He signed for a Friday 65, a course record matched by DiMarco and, later in the day, Els, setting up this delicious third-round pairing: the front-running Tiger and Ernie in the last twosome on that weirdly warm and humid Saturday afternoon.

It brought to mind the '77 Open at Turnberry, in a rare Scottish heat wave, when Nicklaus and Tom Watson matched each other shot after amazing shot over the final 36 holes. Going into that weekend, you couldn't say who had the upper hand. ( Watson won by a shot, with rounds of 65 and 65.) With the new Woods and Els still rounding into form after knee surgery last year, there was not an obvious favorite at Hoylake on Saturday, either. But the match was anticlimactic. Els, looking for his fourth major, was off line with his wedge. Tiger, with three three-putts on the back nine, the last on 17, was sloppy with the putter. Both shot 71. Three over, you could say, as the true par was more like 68. Both made birdie on the short par-5 home hole, but Saturday gave no insight into Sunday. We were watching Tiger 2006, the Tiger we don't really know. The Open was only his 10th PGA Tour event this year. In Saturday's gloaming, Woods seemed worn out, brown fescue seeds in the cuffs of his pants, sand in his ears, his eyes watery with allergies.

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