The first thing to treasure about Tiger Woods’ appearance at the Open Championship this week is that it is happening at all. It is the 150th playing of the oldest tournament in golf. It is at the Old Course at St. Andrews, which does not have a misleading name. The Old Course is, in fact, the oldest course. People, Tiger Woods among them, like to call it “the home of golf.” Needless to say, this should be a cool sporting event, and it would be a lot less shiny if Tiger, who has won twice at St. Andrews, were not there. The Open will not return to this Scotland site until Tiger is well into his 50s. There will not be many more of these, certainly not with Tiger still playing to win rather than as an honorific for his past dominance. He could miss the cut, and the 150th Open would be richer for his having shown up for two rounds.
But part of appreciating the late stages of Woods’ career is resisting the urge to treat his appearances like heartwarming novelties. He has been clear every time he has been asked, which by now is a lot of times, that he has no interest in showing up at tournaments he cannot win. He is not grandstanding. He made the cut at the Masters in April before declining over the weekend. He did the same at May’s PGA Championship, where he withdrew after the course humbled him into a third-round score of 79. And he skipped June’s U.S. Open, because he realized he could not win and was better served getting ready for St. Andrews. He does not much care about regular PGA Tour events, of which he has played zero since returning from a year-plus injury absence at Augusta National. He has no interest in accommodations like riding a cart. When Tiger shows up at a tournament in 2022, he is showing up because he fully believes he can give it a run at 46 years old. That he is ranked 994th in the world is part of the point. Tiger no longer cares about regular events that would earn him world ranking points. He cares about majors.
In that spirit, there is more to Tiger’s 22nd Open start than the fact of its existence. He is a long shot but not an impossibility, even in the relative disrepair that now serves as his permanent state. And if Tiger is going to find one last rabbit in his hat and treat the rest of us to a 16th major win, the Old Course represents something close to his last best shot, even if he keeps taking cracks at another title for a few more summers. Rev up the hype machine, because it will rarely be as souped up as it is this week.
The starting point for believing in Tiger this week—not necessarily to win, but to play well—is his ability to think his way around familiar tracks. Tiger knows more about golf than most people will ever know about any subject. His knowledge reservoir is even deeper at St. Andrews, where he has started five times and won two of his three Opens. Sometimes he talks about the course like a preacher and other times like a scientist. “It’s the home of golf. It’s history,” he will say in one breath, before launching into a dissertation about the course’s many different angles, how quickly the wind can change and shift the entire dynamic of the course, and how many different shapes of shots are required to thrive there. He says it is his favorite course.
It’s not just St. Andrews. Woods is an enormous nerd for links golf, where the beachy terrain gives way to shots that swirl in the unpredictable wind, unless a player takes the approach Tiger sometimes prefers and hits low shots. It is his favorite variety of golf. He is no longer the most skilled player in the field, but his brain is a links golf supercomputer that has programmed in every inch of St. Andrews. In Tiger’s encouraging 1-under first round at the Masters, his knowledge of Augusta weighed on every shot he hit, especially when he needed to recover from the trees or leave a laid-up ball in good position to attack a pin. His peers will hit the ball farther this week, but nobody in the 156-player field will have a more dialed-in strategy.
Local knowledge only gets a player so far. Tiger has five wins at Augusta and another at Southern Hills in Oklahoma, the site of the PGA that he exited after 54 holes. Knowing the way around a course does not make up for having a body that can’t handle it. Before the Masters, Tiger worried about spending four rounds walking the course on a right leg that needed extensive surgical repairs after his 2021 car crash. “Physically, the challenge this week is I don’t have to worry about the ball-striking or the game of golf,” he told assembled reporters before the Masters. “It’s actually just the hills out here. That’s going to be the challenge, and it’s going to be a challenge of a major marathon.” Augusta is really hilly, much moreso than it looks on TV. There was some cold weather. The course is long, too, and increasingly suited to a power game that Tiger doesn’t have anymore. When the tournament ended, Tiger—not usually a man with sympathy for consolation prizes—was thrilled to have just gotten through the hike. Southern Hills—note the name—is also a bear of a course, and more cold weather did not help Tiger at the PGA. The Country Club in Massachusetts, site of the U.S. Open that Tiger passed on, would have been similar.
St. Andrews should be different. The course is not exactly flat. The layout is chock full of undulating mounds and steep bunkers, plus winding water hazards. But it lacks big hills and is a much more chill walk than the typical major host of this era. (Its lack of high ground may in fact be a problem in the near future.) At 7,297 yards, St. Andrews is not a short course, but it also is not a long one by the standards of professional tours and majors. Unlike other major tracks, it has barely gotten longer as players have come to hit the ball farther. Temperatures should get into the high 60s or low 70s over the weekend, which passes for gorgeous in a part of the world where golf is frequently played in windy rainstorms. Tiger, who at this point requires warm weather, should be happy. Whether his body cooperates or not, this week seems like it will provide more or less the ideal environment for an injured 46-year-old star.
It does not have to be a last hurrah. Phil Mickelson is just a year removed from winning a major at 50, even if he has since made it feel like a lot longer than that. But for Tiger, these bids will only get more difficult as the years go by. His 2019 Masters title was a gift to everyone who likes golf, but he was already forestalling Father Time. In golf years, 2019 is no longer the recent past, and everyone craving another Tiger victory is already in a wishcasting mode. Tiger knows as well as anyone that the typical key to winning big tournaments is to be in terrific form for a little while leading up to them. Titles do not tend to come in vacuums. “We all wish we had that two, three-month window when we get hot, and hopefully majors fall somewhere along in that window,” he told the press while Scottie Scheffler was about to parlay his torrid winter and early spring into a win at this year’s Masters. “We take care of it in those windows.”
Most major champs build themselves up in competitive rounds on the PGA Tour. Tiger isn’t built for that schedule anymore and has to lay a foundation in his practice rounds. He has been grinding after that goal, putting in an epic 58 practice holes at St. Andrews by noon local time on Tuesday. It shouldn’t work. For most players straddling the thousandth place in the world ranking, it wouldn’t work. But this is Tiger Woods, and this is links golf in Scotland. It is wise to stay away from declarative statements.