A year ago, Tiger Woods was just hoping he would be able to walk again. On Tuesday, he was all smiles as he navigated his final practice round ahead of a historic Open Championship at St. Andrews in Scotland.
The 15-time major winner has made a fast yet painful recovery to golf since sustaining serious leg injuries in a car accident in February 2021, opening with a remarkable comeback at the Masters in April after almost 17 months away from the sport.
Woods made the cut but – with a rod and pins in his right leg – visibly struggled with the hilly Augusta terrain. He made the cut again at the PGA Championship in Tulsa the following month, but withdrew from the major after the third round having admitted to extensive pain in his leg. In June, he announced he would not play the US Open to give his body “more time.”
Yet despite these struggles, Woods had set one clear target the minute he realized he could once again play to a “high level” – to play the 150th Open at “the home of golf.”
“My focus was to get back here,” the 46-year-old told reporters at St. Andrews on Tuesday.
“It’s incredible, the history behind it, the champions that have won here … this does feel like it’s the biggest Open Championship we’ve ever had.
“This whole year has been something that I’m very proud of … to be able to play in these tournaments when it looked like I would never have this opportunity ever again,” he added.
‘A lot stronger’
Earmarked as his favorite course, the Old Course at St. Andrews holds a special place in Woods’ heart as the host to two of his three Open wins in 2000 and 2005 respectively. The first of these wins saw the American become one of just five golfers – and the youngest – to complete the Career Grand Slam.
A flatter course than Augusta, it also offers a more accommodating environment to Woods, aided by conditioning work in the months since that have helped him to feel “a lot stronger.”
“I’ve gotten a chance to work in the weight room and get stronger and get the endurance better in my leg,” he said.
“Playing Augusta, my leg was not in any condition to play 72 holes. It just ran out of gas, but it’s different now.”
Yet he had used that exact phrasing – “a lot stronger” – ahead of Augusta, and referencing the rocky terrain at St. Andrews, Woods was candid about the physical challenges he still faces.
After playing 18 holes Sunday and nine apiece through the following two days, he plans to take Wednesday off before the tournament begins Thursday.
“My body certainly can get better, but realistically, not a whole lot,” he said.
“It’s the unevenness that is still difficult on me, I have a lot of hardware in my leg, so it is what it is. It’s going to be difficult.”
A St. Andrews farewell?
They are the sort of difficulties that have forced Woods into drastically reducing his program, to the extent that he admitted he will never again play a full schedule. His two major appearances at the Masters and the PGA Championship earlier this year marked his sole two events on the PGA Tour this season, with home practice his sole preparation.
With the Open rotated around several locations, it remains to be seen whether the 150th edition would represent Woods’ sixth and last St. Andrews appearance at the major.
Subsequently, to potentially play his final Open on the Old Course – the site of his debut in the event – would be poignant for the three-time winner.
“I don’t know, if it is that long [six or seven years], whether I will be able to physically compete at this level by then,” Woods said.
“It’s also one of the reasons why I wanted to play in this championship. I don’t know what my career is going to be like.
“I’m not going to play a full schedule ever again, my body just won’t allow me to do that. I don’t know how many Open Championships I have left here at St. Andrews, but I wanted this one.
“It started here for me in ’95, and if it ends here in ‘22, it does. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. If I get the chance to play one more, it would be great, but there’s no guarantee.”
McIlroy ‘can see’ a Woods victory
Quizzed on Woods’ physical condition earlier Tuesday, Rory McIlroy shared the American’s self assessment that he felt in stronger shape, despite enduring difficulties.
“He was moving better than I’d seen him move in a while,” the Northern Irishman told reporters.
“Hitting the golf ball and swinging the club aren’t the issue, it’s the walking part of it that’s the struggle.
“But he seemed to be moving well. Everything looked pretty good yesterday, so that’s encouraging.”
McIlroy is targeting his second Open win after triumph at Royal Liverpool in 2014 and believes Woods is in contention to seal what would be a stunning fourth should strong winds continue into the weekend.
“I think the way the golf course is and the way the conditions are, I could certainly see it,” McIlroy said of a Woods win.
“It’s going to be a game of chess this week, and no one’s been better at playing that sort of chess game on a golf course than Tiger over the last 20 years.”