'Tiger Woods press conference was as packed as the final night of Clonard Novena'
THE sense that the 148th Open Championship is a rather big deal really hit home with the presence of Tiger Woods in the sprawling media tent at Royal Portrush yesterday.
While the north coast course hosted the Irish Open in 2012 – and the neighbouring Portstewart club did likewise two years ago – this event is on a totally different scale.
The world’s elite are all in attendance, each of them getting themselves acquainted with the Dunluce Links on which they will do battle from tomorrow, and also the surrounding area.
The list of press conferences taking place yesterday read like a who’s who of global golf, with Brooks Koepka, US Open champion Gary Woodland, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson all taking their turns in front of the cameras and tape recorders.
But if anyone is in any doubt as to the biggest name in golf, they need only feel the buzz that goes up when Tiger is in the vicinity.
Woods faced the press at 11am after a morning on the course and practice range, and five minutes before he was due to arrive, the interview room was packed to well over capacity, with the crowds standing at the back akin to the final night of the Clonard Novena.
A big cat hasn’t attracted this much attention in north Antrim since they closed the lion enclosure at the safari park in Dervock, but the man himself was in a laid-back and jovial mood.
And he’s also quickly found an affinity for Portrush, even if his grasp of the various reasons for the Open being absent from these shores since 1951 might not be the best.
“It's amazing that it hasn't been here in such a long period of time,” said Woods.
“I know that The R&A has a deal where we go back and forth from Scotland to England. This is just a wonderful golf course. It can play so many different ways, depends on the wind, what it does. Some of the bunkers here, you wonder why in the hell is it there. And then all of a sudden it's in play.”
Woods has already defied the odds to be back and playing on a regular basis after his well-documented struggles with back problems, and his recovery of Lazarus proportions delivered a first Major title at The Masters in April.
Naturally, he’s in Ireland to compete fiercely for a 16th Major and fourth Claret Jug this week, although the impression is that he’s not quite at his optimum level with just one practice round to go before he tees off for real tomorrow afternoon in the company of his predecessor as Masters champion, Patrick Reed, and England’s rising star Matt Wallace.
Asked about the state of his game, he candidly admitted: “It's not quite as sharp as I'd like to have it right now. My touch around the greens is right where I need to have it. I still need to get the shape of the golf ball a little bit better than I am right now, especially with the weather coming in and the winds are going to be changing. I'm going to have to be able to cut the ball, draw the ball, hit at different heights and move it all around.”
That said, you don’t hit the heights Woods has without a fire burning inside, and he is adamant that the tools are still there to make a run at the title, as he did at Carnoustie 12 months ago, even if his body isn’t as receptive to the rigours of professional golf as once it was, with extra work going into being ready these days.
“It's just part of, unfortunately, dealing with the procedures I've had, and being a little bit older. It just doesn't move quite as fast when it's a little bit cooler,” he said.
Yet he’s taking inspiration from the Open exploits of two men who went very close to glory in the not too distant past at far more advanced ages than his 43 years.
“The great thing is playing in an Open Championship, you can do it. Look what Tom [Watson] did at Turnberry, what Greg [Norman] did at Birkdale. The golf course is fast enough, if you don't have the speed to carry the ball 320 yards anymore, you can still run the ball quite a bit out there. You just have to navigate the bunkers and navigate around the golf course. And that's understanding how to play an Open Championship.”
Nobody has more knowledge of how to win a Major than Tiger, although Brooks Koepka is running him close, having won four of the last nine he’s competed in, as well as finishing second in the two big events he hasn’t won this year.
Woods revealed he has attempted to tap into some of the methods his fellow American has been using, but to no avail.
“I texted Brooksie ‘congratulations on another great finish’. What he's done in the last four Major championships has been just unbelievable. To be so consistent, so solid. He's been in contention to win each and every Major championship. And I said ‘Hey, dude, do you mind if I tag along and play a practice round?’ I've heard nothing.”
Koepka famously will be leaning on the local nous of his caddie, Portrush native Ricky Elliott, this week, but Tiger will have none of that advantage, with the very northern part of Ireland a totally new experience to him.
“The people have been absolutely fantastic. They're so respectful,” he said.
“We used to come over here all the time with the late Payne Stewart and [Mark] O'Meara, and we used to go fishing all around Ireland and play golf and enjoy coming over here and playing.
“I've never been this far north. Royal County Down is the furthest north I've ever been. This is new to me.”
It has been all work so far for one of the biggest sporting names ever to strut his stuff on this island, although he does intend to take a bit of time to get used to his surroundings
“I haven't had a lot of time. Normally I take Wednesday off, so tomorrow I'll look around a little bit and see a few things.”
Whether his relaxation time extends to a party to celebrate yet another Major title come Sunday night remains to be seen, although those arrangements can wait until the serious business is attended to.
“I’ve got a few days to work on that part. Let’s take it one step at a time.”
The feeling is that the final part of that statement could be Tiger’s approach to the week as a whole as he attempts to piece together a bid for Open glory despite his ailments and a light playing schedule of late.
At the same time you wouldn’t put it past him to be hoisting the Claret Jug aloft on the 18th green at Royal Portrush on Sunday evening.
That certainly would be a rather big deal.