ST ANDREWS // The hostile interrogators were in place, their salacious and leading questions in readiness for the most famous figure in golf. Tiger Woods, however, is becoming adept at deflecting the aggressive queries from headline-seeking reporters as each step along his painful road to redemption takes him nearer to repairing a tarnished reputation.
Woods walked into a packed media centre at St Andrews a much more composed and confident figure than he had done when first breaking his silence about marital infidelity in front of a hand-picked audience on his home territory of Florida in February. This was his first public meeting with the predominantly British press since his private life was torn apart at the end of last year, and he knew that there would be no punches pulled, especially by the news hounds who do not normally follow the global golf circus.
After allowing the world No 1 a gentle warm-up discussing the condition of the famous Old Course and its various subtle changes and the state of his own game as he seeks a 15th major championship and a fourth in the British Open, the first leading query was posed. "Many of us over the years have heard you use the F word, we've seen you spit on the course and we've seen you throw tantrums like chucking your clubs around," said one questioner. "Are you willing to cut out all those tantrums this week and respect the home of golf?"
Woods, who has triumphed in the last two St Andrews Opens, in 2000 and 2005, refused to be provoked and responded with a smile: "I am trying to become a better player and a better person, yes." That was the platform for probing into whether Tiger and his estranged wife, Elin, have divorced. "I am not going to go into that," he answered politely in the same manner that he refused to discuss his recent two-hour interview with the FBI as part of an investigation into the distribution of a human growth hormone.
When inquiries moved on to Tiger's badly damaged public image, there was still no sign of disenchantment from the man who has drawn record crowds to venues he has visited all over the world. "Most of the people have been fantastic," he said. "They have been so respectful over the years and I don't see it being any different here. "If people do see me differently now, then that's their opinion and everybody is entitled to their opinion."
Woods admitted that his preparations for the third major of the year have not been as thorough as usual because of his domestic situation. He flew home to the US last week after attending a pro-am tournament in the Republic of Ireland. "Normally I wouldn't do that, but I did it to spend time with my kids," he said. "I have two beautiful kids and it was an incredible experience to hang out with them for a few days. I am trying to be the best dad I can possibly be and that's the most important thing of all."
Despite the lack of smoothness to his schedule, Woods believes he is in good shape to end what for him is a long wait for his next tournament success. He has yet to win on the PGA Tour since the BMW Championship in September, his sixth victory of 2009. But he confessed to being concerned by the barren spell in an otherwise all-conquering career. "I think it was 1998 when I went so far into the year without winning a title," he said. "But I'm looking forward to this one. Winning here twice before was among the biggest highlights I've ever had. It's amazing how many great champions have won here and to be a part of that history is a pretty neat feeling."
Woods stopped short of saying that his two previous St Andrews victories give him an edge in what will be the 150th anniversary Open and the 139th in all. After completing his third practice round of the week, he said: "This golf course requires placement and in the two years that I have won I have managed to hit the ball in the right spots. "You also have to lag your putts which I have been able to do here. You are going to face some really long putts out there, no matter how you hit it, so you just have to get down in two, otherwise you can be looking at shooting a high number."
With that in mind, Woods has taken the difficult decision to dispense with the putter that has brought him so much fame and fortune over the years and replace it with one that he feels will be better suited to the slower greens of Scottish links. "I have always had a hard time when the greens are slow," he said. "In the past I have experimented with putters where the ball comes off quicker, but I've never put one into play until now."
Current form suggests otherwise but it may prove to be the adjustment that enables him to become the first player in history to win three times at the home of golf. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org