22 July 2007

It was at the 10th that Tiger revealed his watchword. With the club held at the end of the swing, he berated the disappearing ball with words that stabbed hard into the breath-held, distance-searching silence when a Woods drive has erred. “Fight, fight, fight,” he said.

The world’s most famous active sportsman is so endowed with gifts and charisma and elegance and power and manners that it is easy to overlook the unrelenting toughness at the heart of it. To be up close at Carnoustie yesterday was to see the layers peeling off until the hardness spat through with that three-word epithet. We were already two hours in, and a whole age away from the serene confidence and tumultuous applause as the champion had strode happily up the first with Friday’s nightmare opening shot already despatched into history.

At that early stage, the clouds of glory which Tiger trails with him can overwhelm the spectator into an intoxication of belief. Here, right beside us, walks the man who has taken golf to a whole new dimension, whose 12 majors and last two Opens are but part of the aura his black-clad presence bestows. This is the god of the fairways who has come here with wonders to perform. Sure, things had been difficult on Friday, but when his second shot on the first got to within birdie length there was an almost smug feeling that miracles could be resumed. Yet the putt rolled past. Mortality intervened.

For a while, Tiger’s travails threatened to reach almost embarrassing depths. His drive at the second went left on to the edge of the rough, and a brilliant opening putt was followed by a tiddler that was feebly pushed wide. That soulful look was taking on something close to shivering misery. He wore oversized ski gloves between shots. The commentators said he didn’t like the cold, and could not find his game. This could be a long walk wasted.

Then it happened. His third shot on the fourth was a good 50 feet the wrong side of the green. Tiger and caddie Steve Williams prowled around as if planning a jewel heist. Looks like they were. The putt travelled on and on. Seeing it coming, Willams triumphantly plucked out the pin, and as the ball rolled into the cup Tiger swung his putter high in salute. The magic was back.

The belief held with another brilliant 50-footer at the fifth and then, standing on the tee at the par-five sixth, Tiger took out the driver and sent a screamer 300 yards and straight. An eagle beckoned. Along the right the crowds craned forward, but some had their doubts. “The way he has been going, you ought to have a crash hat,” Armagh-based Cecil Wilson said to his wife, Jennifer. A few seconds later, Tiger’s second smacked into her head and ricocheted back into a playable area. Greater love hath no fan than to put their skull forward to give the master a better lie.

Ambulancemen were called. Tiger proffered embarrassed apologies and gave her a glove as memento. Jennifer, 60, was driven off sitting upright in a buggy, but with an oxygen mask to relieve the pain in her bandaged head. Tiger returned to try to patch up his golf game. That was almost in need of bandages, too.

A birdie at the next was made possible by a dodgy drive bumping off a hillock, and as saving putts kept him alive down to the ninth, the radio commentator asked: “How long can he play this badly and stay in the hunt?”

So as we walked on from the conifer clump, it wasn’t likely to become any easier. He was bunkered there, dropped a shot when failing to sink his second putt, and when he put his second to the left on the 11th he walked across and pushed his bag over in what looked dangerously like petulant despair. Sergio Garcia was on the course by now and going well, Steve Stricker was making it look easy. They needed to see Tiger’s name on the scoreboard. Instead, it was languishing at level par.

The road back was hard. Most of our images of golf are now taken from television, which charts the flight from drive to landing. On the ground, except for the short holes, you usually have no idea. The ball is swatted off the tee with what looks like awesome power and vanishes into the sky, leaving the watcher to deduce its accuracy by the demeanour of the driver. By the 14th, this was getting as dark as the skies. Tiger banged his club into the earth, and set off for another journey to the rough.

But that’s when you realised the measure of the man. The ball had somehow found space between the bunker and a gorse bush. This hole is called “The Spectacles” because of two bunkers that stand winking together in guard of the green. Tiger took out a three-wood and put them in their place. He got a shot back at the next, and was still clinging on to the precious minus figure when his drive at the 18th went into almost Jean Van de Velde rough. He chipped out into the fairway without any Frenchman’s panic, but now a shot would surely be dropped before the clubhouse.

We stood in the shelter as Tiger eyed things up on the other side of the burn. The ball rose in an easy, guided parabola to come down within eight feet. For ordinary mortals, this would still need a mighty effort to make it safe. But as Tiger prowled round this last time you somehow knew that this would not be allowed to spoil the fight that had got him here. The ball did its duty and rolled in.

Tiger’s late father, Earl, was never in any doubt about his son’s genius, nor about the inner steel at its core. He once recalled: “I told him one thing – you will never meet another person as tough as you.” He hasn’t, and he won’t. Woods Jnr will do nothing but relish the task ahead.

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