Players competing against a different Tiger Woods than in the past, says Rory McIlroy

Carl Markham 23/07/2018
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Tiger Woods was in contention on the final day of The Open Championship.

Rory McIlroy believes he and his rivals have to learn to deal with a different version of Tiger Woods after he returned to contending in majors again.

While the 14-time winner is trading comeback stories with good friend Serena Williams, who has 23 grand slam singles titles, after their Open and Wimbledon near misses, his contemporaries will be trying to work out what this means for them.

Woods was so close to a fairytale return to the Open at Carnoustie after a three-year absence, eventually coming up three short of eventual winner Francesco Molinari, having led around the turn in his final round.

But the performance at least showed he can contend again after four back operations which threatened to end his career.

“It’s not (the) Tiger that, you know, Phil (Mickelson) and Ernie (Els) and those guys had to deal with. It’s a different version,” said world number eight McIlroy, whose charge came too late as he finished in a share of second two shots back.

“But he’s right there. He’s getting himself in the mix. He looked good in (Washington) DC a couple weeks back (where he tied fourth at the Quicken Loans National). He’s looked good here.

“He does things that maybe he didn’t do 10, 15 years ago, but it’s still great to have him back. It’s still great for golf.

“He’s healthy. I wouldn’t say we’re worried about him, but he’s one of those guys that’s always in with a shot.”

Woods is expecting to hear from Williams, who lost the Wimbledon final to Angelique Kerber earlier this month, where they will discuss how their respective comebacks are going.

“Serena and I are good friends. I’m sure she’ll probably call me and talk to me about it because you’ve got to put things in perspective,” said the American.

“She just had a baby and lost the Wimbledon finals so just keep it in perspective, and the same thing with me.

“I know that it’s going to sting for a little bit here, but given where I was to where I’m at now, I’m blessed.”

The consolation prize of finishing in a share of sixth is that he just squeezed into the world’s top 50, earning a return to the WGC events, with one of his favourite courses at Firestone Country Club hosting the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron next in a couple of weeks.

Woods has won eight times on Firestone’s South Course, accounting for almost one tenth of all his PGA Tour wins, with his most recent victory in 2013, but he has not played in any WGC events since 2014.

That gives him a further chance to sharpen his game – and improve his world ranking – and last year’s Open champion Jordan Spieth believes his compatriot is now beyond the comeback stage.

“This wasn’t a fluke. I think we’ve seen that throughout the year,” said the 24-year-old, who was also in contention for a large part of the final round at Carnoustie.

“And he wouldn’t tell you, but he’s human, and experiencing that kind of pressure that he would have felt leading the Open on a Sunday is no different than anybody else, especially having not experienced it for so long.

“He obviously has good memories to draw on, but that was something he’ll come back stronger from for sure.”

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Tiger Woods admits Open Championship felt like the old good days

Carl Markham 23/07/2018
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Tiger Woods admits contending at the Open felt just like the old days and was delighted his two children finally got to see what all the fuss was about.

Woods held the outright lead at Carnoustie heading into his back nine, as he looked to end his decade-long major drought, but dropped three shots in two holes and he never regained the momentum.

The 14-time major winner eventually finished three shots behind eventual champion Francesco Molinari.

However, swept along by a massive gallery cheering his every move, this was the biggest indication yet since returning from a fourth back operation that Woods can compete at the highest level again.

Daughter Sam, aged 11, and son Charlie, nine, were too young to see their dad in his pomp but they greeted him with a hug behind the 18th green.

“I told them I tried, and I said ‘hopefully you’re proud of your pops for trying as hard as I did’,” he said.

“It’s pretty emotional because they gave me some pretty significant hugs and squeezes there.

“I know that they know how much this championship means to me and how much it feels good to be back playing again.

“To me, it’s just so special to have them aware because I’ve won a lot of golf tournaments in my career, but they don’t remember any of them.

“The only thing they’ve seen is my struggles and the pain I was going through. Now they just want to go play soccer with me so that’s just such a great feeling.”

The 42-year-old’s hopes of a remarkable comeback after a turbulent spell in his life – during which he has encountered off-course problems with the break-up of his marriage and a run-in with the law – were alive and well on the back nine.

He had the outright lead at seven under as he turned but dropped three shots in two holes at the 11th and 12th and never recovered his momentum, eventually finishing three shots behind Molinari.

“It didn’t feel any different. I’ve done it so many different ways,” he added.

“It felt great to be a part of the mix and build my way into the championship. Today was a day that I had a great opportunity.

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“It was a blast. I was saying earlier that I need to try and keep it in perspective because, at the beginning of the year, if they’d have said you’re playing the Open Championship I would have said I’d be very lucky to do that.”

Woods was annoyed with his slip-up after the turn but insists he would not do it differently, although he was less impressed with a spectator shouting from a hospitality box at the top of his backswing on the 18th tee.

“I flinched, but I’ve had things like that happen a lot in my career with people who just tried to time it,” he said.

“Unfortunately, that’s part of what we have to deal with in today’s game. People are trying to yell out things to try to be on TV or be on social media or whatever it may be. That was too close to the game of play.

“But I’m a little ticked off at myself for sure. I had a chance starting that back nine to do something and I didn’t do it.”

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The Claret Jug wasn't necessary for golf fans to be reminded of the Tiger Woods experience

Jay Asser 23/07/2018
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Tiger Woods had his first top-10 finish at a major since 2013.

It sure was nice to see that familiar red in the mix at the end of a Sunday again, wasn’t it?

Tiger Woods is back. Or he was, until it all fell apart on the back nine in the final round of the Open Championship.

Maybe he’s back or maybe he isn’t, it’s always difficult to know with him. It’s probably safe to say the old Tiger – he of 14 major championships and a dominance that was unrivaled in the sport’s history – will never be seen again.

But as long as that question can be asked, golf will savour every moment of it, as it did on Sunday when all eyes were on the American as he not only reminded us of his unquestioned talent, but also refreshed our memory of what the experience is like to see him compete in the final stages of a major.

Woods started the day at -5 under, four shots off the lead. That in itself was a promising sign for a player who struggled to even walk during his recovery from a back injury for much of last year. Just watching Tiger in with a chance on the final day was must-see TV, considering he hadn’t finished better than 17th (2015 Masters) at a major in five years.

That he actually held the outright lead on Sunday – his first in a major since the 2009 PGA Championship – and went into the back nine atop the leaderboard, set alarm bells ringing. To get there, he had a bogey-less front nine, just as he had in the third round on Saturday, to look like the Tiger that used to own Sundays with regularity.

But that’s where the dream died. Just when it appeared the stars had aligned for one of the best sports stories of the year, Woods frustratingly fell apart. As encouraging as his front nine was, his final nine holes were equally as maddening as he exhibited the same uneven play that has plagued him throughout this decade.

After a par on the 10th, Woods required six shots to finish off the 385-yard 11th, resulting in his first double bogey of the week.

Another bogey on the 12th all but ended his hopes for a win as, just like that, excitement gave way to disappointment.

Fittingly, his final hole of the tournament encapsulated the entire Tiger experience at the Open. During his tee shot, a fan yelled out and Woods was not happy. Just as furious, however, was every golf fan, and not necessarily because it violated the sanctity of the game, but because it felt like everyone was pulling for Woods to claim victory.

Tiger still recovered well to set up a birdie putt that would have earned him a top-five finish, but missed to settle for par – a fizzle of a finish to an otherwise intoxicating performance.

The end result would have been nice, but as the saying goes, Woods’ weekend was about the journey, not the destination. Even in his heyday, he didn’t win every single time, even though it felt like it.

As long as he’s contending in the biggest tournaments, golf is better for it. Especially from an American perspective, the attention of the casual fan is more dependent on Tiger’s form than anything else.

It’s not as if the game has died during Woods’ absence. There’s been no shortage of emerging talent among American golfers and someone like Jordan Spieth especially has helped fill the void, winning three majors and finishing second in two more since the start of 2015.

But Tiger is a different animal and the galvanising effect he has on golf fans is something that can’t be matched and maybe never will.

So yes, we don’t know if Tiger is back or if he’s here to stay. That the possibility even exists in 2018 though, is something the sport won’t take for granted.

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