I never thought it possible for Tiger to get back to the level where he would genuinely compete again in majors. At best I thought he might possibly have a decent run in one or two smaller events. I never dreamt he would be the king of the course again, as he was this last week at the USPGA at Bellerive. I never doubted him mentally. I just thought it would be beyond him physically. When will I learn? Never say never.
When I first started working in the States in 2006, I did dozens of Tiger’s rounds. I spent hours inside the ropes with him seeing what he had to deal with – the constant movement of thousands of fans wanting to touch him, make eye contact with him and the energetic rush, rush, rush to get in place to actually see him play. His office was not a place of peace or calm tranquillity. I didn’t like him much back then. I always loved his golf game, but I too often witnessed his scornful treatment of good people, sound professional journalists. Scorn is a terrible thing. I interviewed him many times and he looked at you with barely concealed impatience (this was radio so no need to look interested) and it was obvious he was wishing to be elsewhere. Fast forward a dozen years and the landscape of golf has changed quite considerably. He has bred this new generation of young, strong, fearless golfers who can, now, occasionally, play like he used to all the time. And, if anything, things have intensified even for him out on the course. The roped-off corridors leading from green to tee are wider now to accommodate a forest of outstretched arms on each side all begging for a low five from their hero and in front of the thousands of faces are little black oblong screens – mobile phones are allowed on the courses now – snapping endless photos so that the owners can say, ” You remember Tiger finishing runner-up at Bellerive? Well, I was there!”
Tiger, too, has changed – at least for the moment. Let’s see if it lasts. He has been on somewhat of a charm offensive on this latest comeback trail and there is a more mannerly edition in front of us now. In the first round last week he opened with a truly remarkable level par 70. I had wandered out to the range around 6.30 in the morning to see him warming up. I was taken aback – he looked knackered and was already resting considerably between shots as the steamy temperatures were beginning to rise. Then he started double bogey, bogey – 3 over after 2 – and he wasn’t moving well. What transpired over the next four hours is one of the greatest exhibitions I’ve ever seen of playing the game. It is an immense privilege to see a person pour every ounce of themselves into a task. He played as if each stroke were his last, pouring in gallons of pure concentrated effort and focus. They didn’t all work out – this was not Tiger at his imperious, ball-striking best. He never looked back, though, just forward, just putting one foot in front of the other. As the temperatures soared to the high 90s (Fahrenheit) and with the humidity rising (he changed shirts as many as three times) he clawed his way back, ultimately signing off with that level par score.
“Boy, that was a grind,” he said to me in response to my first interview question. He was absolutely spent but he engaged with all his interviewers in a way that was new to me. He looked at you as if you were a proper person and not just an inconvenience to him. He was engaged and thoughtful in his answers.
By the end of the week he was the story of the week. He didn’t win but the rock-star adulation and massive, massive crowds were for him and him alone. As he strode from the final green across the elevated walkway to the recording area the chants of “Let’s go, Tiger, let’s go” rang out. He turned and gave them a thumbs up. It’s a thumbs up from me for Tiger, too.
Who? Ricky is Brooks Koepka’s Northern Irish caddy and the pair of them celebrated their fifth anniversary of working together last weekend by winning the 100th USPGA Championship. Brooks has won three of the last seven majors and Ricky has been on the bag for each victory. A talented player himself Ricky played college golf for the University of Toledo in Ohio after winning the Ulster Boys’ and Ulster Youths’ Championships back at home. He dabbled a bit on mini-tours after turning pro but has found his niche as the bagman for the man currently playing the best golf in the world. He hails from Portrush and still has family there – his parents live there – and his brother has a golf shop in Coleraine. No shortage of a bed then when the Open rolls into town next July. After his US Open win at Shinnecock in June I told Brooks that we all considered his win another notch on the Irish major list. He seemed to find that hilarious – I don’t think he realised I wasn’t joking. Now we have another to add to the list. Rock on Ricky.
Scott was in the final pairing on the last day and it was the first time for a long time that I had been assigned to one of his groups. With only one top ten finish to his name for the season the tall Aussie with the elegant swing has remained unfailingly courteous and classy despite his ongoing on-course travails. The week was very difficult for him with the news that his friend and fellow Australian professional, Jarrod Lyle, had died from leukemia at the age of 36. It was uplifting to see him back in contention at the sharp end of a major and see his game stand up to the rigours of final round pressure. I look forward to watching him make his way back up the world rankings.
I bumped in to Denis at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning as we were walking out to our starting points on the course for the resumption of play after thunderstorms had curtailed activities on the Friday. I was continuing my second round coverage of Rory, Tiger and Justin Thomas and Denis was on his way to continue following one of the players he coaches, namely, the new Open champion, Francesco Molinari. Denis has coached Francesco for years and I was thrilled to get the opportunity to congratulate him in person for what must surely be the pinnacle of his coaching career. He revealed that once the final round at Carnoustie started he got in the car for the long drive home. At the point that his charge won the Claret Jug Denis was filling up with petrol at a service station. He then sat down to enjoy a tuna baguette to give himself a moment to gather himself together before continuing his journey. A few days later he joined Francesco and his family in the Bahamas for a few days and had a real celebration. That night as he was tottering off to bed he asked the new champion where he was going to leave the trophy overnight. “You take it to your room for the night,” said Francesco. “And that,” said Denis triumphantly, “is how I got to sleep with the Claret Jug!”
I’m sure the dreams were sweet, Denis.