British Open: Tiger, turf examples of how much things can change
BY DOUG FERGUSON Associated Press July 12, 2014 12:58AM
Tiger Woods, the 2006 British Open winner, will be playing in his first major in 11 months when the tournament starts Thursday at Royal Liverpool. | Alastair Grant/AP
AT A GLANCE
Tournament: 143rd British Open.
Dates: Thursday through next Sunday.
Site: Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
Length: 7,312 yards.
The course: Royal Liverpool is the second-oldest golf course in England, founded in 1869. It hosted the first British Amateur and staged the first match between the United States and Britain in 1921, which inspired George H. Walker to start the Walker Cup. Until 1876, golfers shared the links with a horse-racing track.
Field: 156 (4 amateurs).
Prize money: $9.24M.
Winner’s share: $1.67M.
Defending champion: Phil Mickelson.
Last year: Mickelson delivered one of the best closing rounds in major championship history at Muirfield. He made four birdies in the last six holes to win the major even he thought he would never win. Mickelson rallied from a five-shot deficit and won by three shots over Henrik Stenson. It was his fifth major and left him only a U.S. Open away from the career Grand Slam.
Television: Thursday and Friday: 3 a.m. to 2 p.m., ESPN. Saturday: 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., ESPN. Sunday: 5 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., ESPN.
Updated: July 13, 2014 2:26AM
HOYLAKE, England — The British Open packs 154 years of history on links courses that have been nurtured more by time than by tractors. It returns this year to Royal Liverpool, the second-oldest golf club in England, established in 1867 before anyone in America knew much about the Royal & Ancient game.
For all its heritage, however, the charm of this major is what lies ahead. No one ever knows what to expect.
Consider the landscape.
Royal Liverpool was so brown and baked when The Open was last here in 2006 that the R&A asked players to take extra care if they smoked, and it had two fire engines stationed on the golf course. The ball rolled so far when it hit the ground that Tiger Woods hit only one driver over 72 holes and won by two shots.
Now the grass is greener than it was at Pinehurst No. 2 for the U.S. Open.
It feels like a new course.
‘‘It’s lush. The greens are soft and very green. Fairways are pretty similar,’’ said Rory McIlroy, who took a scouting trip to Hoylake last week. ‘‘But I think they are going to get a spell of good weather leading up to The Open, and hopefully, it will get a bit firmer.’’
He recalled watching in 2006 when ‘‘the ball was like bouncing down a road on the fairways.’’ McIlroy says he could hit as many as five drivers each round.
‘‘It’s going to be a little different,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s some thick spots of rough on the course, so avoiding that and avoiding those fairway bunkers . . . if I can just do that, and anyone else can do that, then they’ll have a good chance.’’
A greater change might be the landscape of golf.
Woods was at the height of his powers eight years ago when he won the claret jug for the third time. He was the first player in more than 20 years to repeat as Open champion. He would go on to win the PGA Championship that year, making history as the only player to capture multiple majors in successive years.
Now he makes news when he can even play in a major.
Woods has had three surgeries since he was last at Royal Liverpool — two on his left knee, the most recent on March 31 to alleviate a nerve impingement in his back, which caused him to miss the Masters for the first time and then the U.S. Open. When the British Open begins Thursday, it will be his first major in 11 months.
Woods returned earlier than anyone thought — himself included — three weeks ago in the Quicken Loans National at Congressional. He missed the cut, which annoyed him, and played without pain, which thrilled him.
‘‘I hate to say it, but I’m really encouraged by what happened this week,’’ Woods said. ‘‘What I was able to do physically, and the speed I had and the distance that I was hitting the golf ball again, I had not done that in a very long time.’’
He wasn’t worried about the little mistakes, mainly with his short game, because he could fix them.
But how soon?
Woods is 38 and without a major in six years, leaving him at 14 for his career and still four short of catching Jack Nicklaus. It might help to return to a course where he has won before, except that this is a different golf course. And he is not the same player.
‘‘We haven’t seen Tiger really, really play well in a while now,’’ two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said.
There hasn’t been a dominant player even during his time away from various injuries and surgeries over the last five years. Golf is ruled by committee.
McIlroy, with two majors by age 23, is just now starting to get his game back in order. Martin Kaymer is in the best form, having won The Players Championship and U.S. Open by going wire-to-wire in both. Adam Scott is No. 1 in the world. Phil Mickelson is the defending champion. Justin Rose is fresh off a big win at Congressional. Bubba Watson is a Masters champion again.
All have had moments of greatness, none of it sustained. Nineteen players have won the 24 majors that have been held since Woods won his last one.
Considering the circumstances, Woods winning would be a surprise. Then again, for as long as golf’s oldest championship has been around, it is still capable of delivering a few shockers.
Mickelson produced one of his own at Muirfield last summer when he had his named etched on that silver claret jug for winning the one major that for years befuddled him. Only five years ago, 59-year-old Tom Watson came within an 8-foot par putt of being the oldest major champion. Ben Curtis was playing his first major in 2003 when he won at Royal St. George’s. He was the only player to break par.
What happened eight years ago at Royal Liverpool feels like ancient history. Perhaps that should be the adage for The Open. The more things stay the same, the more they change.