x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Which Woods will turn up?

Fans await a promised turnaround and at Pebble Beach, the swagger is back and so is the attitude, but what about his play?

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA // A chilly breeze swept through Pebble Beach yesterday, prompting players to put on sweaters and doing little to calm their fears that the seaside course could get so fast it would almost be unplayable in the US Open. It was not a lot warmer in the media tent, either, where Tiger Woods drew a standing room-only crowd of reporters for the ritual dance that both seem to be finding increasingly distasteful.

Questions about the state of his game were dismissed with his usual vagueness. Questions about the state of his personal life were simply dismissed. "None of your business," Woods said when asked about his marriage. It is, of course, some of everybody's business because Woods himself made it that way. He was the one who tried to stop the haemorrhaging of his public image with a national television address about his affairs, and he was the one who vowed publicly not just to become a better husband but a better man.

There would be a new Tiger, he promised us all, and soon the world would see him for what he really is. The world is still waiting. Woods teed off yesterday in an Open that should tell us a lot about whether he can regain his edge on the golf course. He proclaims his game in good shape and seems more concerned with trying to win on Sunday than trying to make the cut today. Indeed, his game may be better. Who knows, maybe his marriage is, too, despite the plentiful rumours that say a costly divorce is as imminent as it is inevitable.

But where is the better man he promised? Where is the player who vowed to show more respect to the game? Not at Pebble Beach this week, apparently. If anything, the old Woods swagger seems to be back, along with the old Woods attitude. That is not necessarily a bad thing for golf fans. Most are sick of hearing about Woods's private life and salivate at the thought of him playing down the back nine on Sunday at Pebble with the Open on the line.

Television executives would be thrilled, too. Woods moves the ratings needle like no player ever has. They are probably quietly rooting for an expletive or two after a wayward drive, just like the old days. People might be afraid to walk away during a commercial break, in case they miss something good. So far this week there has not been, at least off the course. Woods seems even more determined than before to offer fans anything, whether it be an autograph or a revealing quote.

He may have discarded the dark glasses that made him look like he was in the witness protection programme, but he is clearly still full-bore in the Tiger protection programme. Ten years ago he won the Open here by an unbelievable 15 shots without saying a word to playing partner Ernie Els. Now his way of showing everyone he has changed comes by offering up this pabulum about his opening pairing with Els.

"It's neat to have Ernie in the group," Woods said. "I think we're going to have a good time." Yeah, then maybe dinner and a few drinks together. That work for you Ernie? The prevailing logic going into this Open was that Woods would not have a good time this week no matter who he was paired with. That is largely because he cannot seem to hit it straight off the tee, a quality that is usually critically important in the national championship.

But with light winds and sunny skies expected all week, Pebble Beach is growing increasingly fast. And that means Woods can hit long irons and three-woods off the tee on most holes and rarely reach into the bag for the club he cannot seem to control. Couple that with a short game that seems as impeccable as ever, and Woods may have some reason for his optimism. At a time where he is desperate for some validation on the golf course, a golf course that plays fast and hard could be just what he needs.

Those who got to Pebble early enough yesterday to catch the end of Woods's practice round got a glimpse of that. After hitting into a fairway bunker on the seaside 18th and still having a long shot left, he took out an iron and sent a screamer on to the green. A television reporter asked Woods what iron it was and he flashed two fingers before thinking better of it. "None of your business," he said.

Unlike the day before, he was smiling. And that offered up yet another possibility for this Open. Maybe he and Els will have a good time after all. * AP