17 July 2005

There should be no mistaking the presence of greatness. Early in the month, we had the easy grace and panther-like genius of Roger Federer at Wimbledon, early in the week the superman toughness of Lance Armstrong in the Alps, and now Tiger Woods – at St Andrews in his pomp and in his pain.

The great cast a spell on others. Federer doesn’t mean to, it just happens when you mix him with a tennis court. Armstrong works on it every hour of every day on and off the bike. To see him close up on Tuesday was awesome in the frightening as well as the admiring sense. Woods is different. The spell draws you in. Especially at St Andrews this week.

The aura is heightened by expectation and familiarity. Suddenly there is the most famous sporting face on the planet only feet away on the practice green. The man whose every elegant move we seem to have watched a thousand times is looking at a bunch of white balls at his feet. We have all devoured acres of newsprint and hours of TV time on how he might repeat the runaway St Andrews triumph of 2000 and now he is delivering as promised.

First sight in the flesh is to notice how strong he has become. At 6ft 2in and 13½st he is a much more solid figure than the willowy 21-year-old I first saw take apart a course with that astonishing 64 on the Troon Saturday in 1997. But all those hours in the gym ensure that the bulk is all fitness not flab, that his movements do not grunt but glide. Stroking putts across the lawn on Friday was as if he was caressing a cat with his fingers.

Back in 97 there was still a wariness in those soulful eyes, some evident discomfort at the rubber-necking throng that dogged his every move, maybe even a touch of fear that he might not live up to the hyper heralding of the years ahead. This week there was a man at ease with himself and all the gifts and glory and fishbowl fame that this could bring.

Some people scowl to fix their attention and keep others out. Nick Faldo was a major at scowling. Tiger’s ‘game face’ has a sort of sad serenity about it since concentrating on the intricacies of a golf ball crossing space has long become its natural state. He finishes his thousandth putt, walks across to playing partner Robert Allenby, shares some mild joke and those thick lips draw back to reveal a smile that dazzles even from a distance. A small boy climbs on the wooden fence and calls “Tiger, Tiger”. The great man does not ignore him. He just does not hear. There are windows to his world. They get blacked out as tee-time comes.

The spell he casts in this week’s Riviera weather often has a basking glow about it. He is the world’s best, he is in the lead, he is at the home of golf, he is doing exactly what his life was intended for. So most of the time on the course Woods seems more to be polishing perfection than striving for it. In the five long but fascinating hours of Friday’s 67 there were only two moments, only two, when anything close to a storm disturbed the mill-pond of the countenance.

It took all the way to the 12th before the first broke. Tiger had his usual chance of an eagle but missed it, and then even missed the ‘minnow’ back for a birdie. Tiger’s face darkened and jerked to the right as he gave an angry swish of the club. “Gad,” he said. It was almost shocking.

The second came on the 18th, still awash from all those watery tears as old Jack said goodbye. Tiger chipped high from the left but his ball landed short and then naughtily, humiliatingly ran back into the Valley of Sin. Tiger was over on the other side of the green. It was hard to lip-read. But something worse than “Gad” might have been said.

Five birdies for a 67, only two moments of pain, and a four-shot lead at the half-way stage of the Open, not surprising that the man who came into the interview room had an eloquence to match his mastery of his metier. These can be sycophantic affairs but Friday’s was a lot more than the usual lectures on yardage and club selection. For Woods had been preceded by Nicklaus himself and was now asked how comfortable he was to be compared to Jack in his prime.

“That’s fine,” said Woods with a special mixture of humility and pride. “To be compared to the greatest player that ever lived in our game. It’s nice to be in that kind of company. It’s certainly an honour that I’m even mentioned in the same conversation.” No one doubted that he wants the conversation to continue.

Yesterday morning a shortish, panama-hatted figure was benignly watching play progress around the loop. It was the racing tycoon and one time Manchester United shareholder for whom Woods had flown over to a charity pro-am in Ireland last week. The pair had dinner together at St Andrews on Tuesday.

“I thought,” said J P McManus in that quiet mysterious way of his and stressing hard the final word, “that he was very focused.” He needs to be now.

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