SPORT

Will it be a repeat of a Woods walkover at St. Andrews?

Jim McCabe

ST. ANDREWS (Scotland): So often, the boundaries of his greatness are defined by power and ferocity, brute strength and crushing blows.

Look deeper, Tiger Woods insists. Go beyond those borders to see what makes him such a complete golfer. Look at the gentle side to his game, the one that rarely wins headlines, only tournaments.

"It's always more fun when you have to think your way around the golf course," said Woods, his eyes wide and his smile wider because he has returned to a place that stirs great memories and provides his mind with the test he craves. He has returned to the Old Course, where five years ago he played these links like no other champion had played them.

Woods employed just 269 strokes of genius to win the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews, the fewest of the 26 British Opens staged at the Old Gray Lady. He was 19 under par that magical week in a most magical summer of three Major conquests and that established a British Open record. The eight-shot margin of victory? You have to go back to the days of the Tom Morris lads, Old and Young, to find wider ones and only J.H. Taylor and James Braid, going back to 1900, 1908, and 1913, matched Woods's effort.

Record-breaking

In other words, Woods rewrote the record books and unleashed a floodgate of superlatives from eyewitnesses. "He is," stated Mark Calcavecchia that closing Sunday afternoon, "the chosen one."

Just don't say he overpowered St. Andrews. More like he scored a technical knockout, his most stunning accomplishment the way he manoeuvred left, right, over, and around the 112 bunkers that are at the heart of this ancient piece of ground. Not once did Woods hit into a bunker that year and that had everything to do with precision.

"Instead of standing up there and hitting it and [saying,] `Who cares where it goes,"' said Woods, "golf is meant to be more cerebral. You have to use your head to get around. And I think that's the fun part, to be creative."

Woods excels at that part of the game, his ability to escape precarious greenside dilemmas are legendary, and he demonstrated a profound feel for course management that almost made people forget about his prodigious length.

But times have changed and while Woods has won five of the 19 Major championships since that July Sunday five years ago, he's come up empty in the four British Opens since. Each has had its series of problems:

In 2001 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Woods hit into bunkers early and often, shot 283 and finished joint 25th, nine behind David Duval.

Saturday storm

2002? The Saturday storm, a round of 81 in the wind and rain, and a tumble into 25th that halted his improbable quest to win the Grand Slam.

In 2003, Woods said he let it get away at Royal St. George's. A final-day bogey at the eighth hurt, but so did an inward 2-over 37 that culminated with another bogey at the 17th and helped open the door for the unheralded Ben Curtis. Though he bogeyed four of the last seven holes, Curtis won by one over Thomas Bjorn and Davis Love, while Woods was two back.

Last year, Woods played consistently, just not spectacular enough at Royal Troon. He finished tied for ninth, hardly up to his standards, and the British Open remains the only Major he has not won at least twice.

That reality ushers Woods into the 134th Open Championship where his confidence is high, partly because St. Andrews is expected to play as it did in 2000 (hard and fast in warm conditions) and partly because the links have been lengthened in a few key spots, affording him even more leverage.

"Any time you lengthen the golf course, you have to use driver more often," said Woods, "And if a guy hits the ball further, he's going to have an advantage if he's hitting it well. Even if it's a short course."

Earlier this season, Woods halted a stretch of 10 Majors without a win when he stormed past Chris DiMarco to take his fourth Masters.

It was the ninth Major title and once again got the talk flowing of a run towards Jack Nicklaus' record 18 professional Major triumphs. During the drought, such talk was stymied, but Woods is ahead of Nicklaus' pace.

In 35 starts in the Majors as a pro, Woods has nine conquests; Nicklaus didn't earn his ninth until his 40th start.

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