HOYLAKE, England – Even when he’s not the favorite, Tiger Woods is still the show at the British Open.
Woods earned that attention by piling up majors at a faster rate than anyone in history, and the attention is just as great now because his recent past includes back surgery and his immediate future is more uncertain than ever. ESPN plans to show his entire round online Thursday.
Not to be overlooked at golf’s oldest championship, however, is a new generation of stars.
Rickie Fowler and Harris English will be playing ahead of him. Two groups behind will be Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama. They are among 25 players who share a bond that speaks to the state of golf. Woods has never won a major during their professional careers.
Yes, they saw his dominance on TV. They just never experienced it.
They were not around for the decade when Woods won majors with regularity, sometimes by a record score, sometimes by a record margin. They missed the days that were so Tiger-centric a player couldn’t get through an interview without being asked something about Woods.
“Tiger ruined a lot of guys’ lives,” Charles Howell III, a longtime friend of Woods who lived through those times, said earlier in the year. “He caused a lot of people some sleepless Sunday nights. But he also motivated an entire generation behind him.”
Howell’s point was that while the next generation might have been in awe of Woods, being outside the arena allowed them to study him without getting scarred. They learned from the way he worked. They were more prepared than the generation before them.
The talk at this British Open is that it is more open than ever.
But then, that’s been the case since Woods won his last major six years ago. Since that 2008 U.S. Open, 19 players have won majors, and no one has won more than two. In the 24 majors leading up to his last major, Woods won six, Phil Mickelson won three and no one else won more than one.
“Looking at the different amount of winners in the last five years at the major championships, we’re seeing so many players win,” Henrik Stenson said Wednesday. It’s so competitive. At some point there might have been 20 guys battling out for it. And now it feels like anyone in the field can win if they have a great week. So it’s definitely tighter.”
Stenson, No. 2 in the world and among the favorites this week, will be playing alongside Woods for the opening two days.
“He’s just one of the guys I need to beat if I want to do well this week,” Stenson said. “But it’s a good start if you know you can beat him.”
Woods is playing his first major of the year because of March 31 back surgery. Returning to Royal Liverpool was always the target – he won his third claret jug on these links in 2006 when it was brown and fast, not green and slower as it is this year. Woods came back sooner than he expected, missing the cut at Congressional three weeks ago in what had the feeling of a 36-hole rehab assignment.
He feels healthy. He feels strong. And he still commands a presence.
That much was clear when Woods played only two holes Wednesday as spectators scrambled for a view. He brings energy and excitement to a golf tournament.
Does he bring intimidation?
The Open is his next opportunity to see if he can regain the mystique that a younger generation has yet to experience. Matt Kuchar, who played a practice round with Woods on Sunday, doesn’t think it will take much. He’s not sure Woods ever lost it.
“The kids today grew up idolizing him,” Kuchar said. “He gets back on form again, I don’t think that intimidation factor is gone at all. These are the kids that grew up watching him and wanting to be him.”
Kuchar said it can be intimidating to play alongside, although Patrick Reed sure wasn’t flustered having Woods in the group ahead of him at Doral, and Spieth didn’t looked rattled when he shot 63 at Torrey Pines (the North Course) with Woods in his group.
Is there a difference between watching dominance on TV and seeing it in person?
“You’re saying a different intimidation for the guys who are now just coming up and just watched it on TV as opposed to my generation that were actually losing by 10 to it?” Kuchar said with a laugh. “I’m not sure. If I was to go shoot baskets with Michael Jordan right now, I would be pretty intimidated. So it’s probably similar. The guys that played against him and got scored 40 on probably have a similar feeling to me in the awe that surrounds a guy like that.”
It all unfolds on Thursday, where the only mystery greater than Woods in the English weather. The final day of practice featured sunshine and rain. Hoylake when it’s green is there to be attacked – it’s the only course on the Open rotation with four par 5s. The greens are not severe. The fairways are relatively flat, which makes them more fair.
All eyes will be on Woods, and there’s nothing unusual about that. The difference is that no one is sure what they will see.