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Tiger opting for brain over brawn after finding his smile again

 

By Brian Keogh

Whenever Tiger Woods smiles at a press conference, a hundred cameras start clicking. It happened more than once here at Carnoustie yesterday as Woods let his usual mask of sternness slip.

He looked mellow, happy, at ease. The contrast with the mugshot at Jupiter Police Department, showing him haunted and disorientated after his arrest last year for driving under the influence of prescription drugs, could hardly have been more jarring.

All this beaming was not just for the photographers' benefit. While few would count him among the favourites to win his 15th Major this week, Woods has ample cause to be cheerful, from the piecemeal progress of his game to his liberation from a world of back pain.

He might lack the aura that he projected at his pomp in 2005, but he is at last offering a few rays of human warmth.

"There were points when I thought I would never be in this Championship again," he said.

For years, Woods treated his aloofness almost as a professional necessity. But on his return to a stage he has not graced for three years, he redoubled the charm offensive.

He has a steady girlfriend again - Erica Herman, the general manager of the Florida restaurant he owns - and there is talk she will be joining him on the Angus coast later in the week. Of all The Open venues, Carnoustie is a place where Woods feels comfortable.

Although he lacks any great pedigree here, having finished joint seventh in 1999 and tied for 12th in 2007, it was this course that cemented his love affair with links golf.

As a 19-year-old amateur in the 1995 Scottish Open, Woods would spend the long summer evenings with his father Earl on the range, learning how to deal with all the vagaries Carnoustie could conjure.

"I remember my dad asking, 'Are you ever going to hit the ball beyond the 100-yard sign?'" he said. "I told him, 'No, I'm just enjoying this'. I grew up in Southern California, where it's all kikuyu grass. Nothing rolls. So I thought it was just the best to see the ball bounce, a course where I could be creative and use my mind."

The received wisdom is that The Open represents Woods' best chance left of a Major, after a decade-long drought without one. Of late, it has been the kindest to forty-somethings, with Phil Mickelson, Darren Clarke and Ernie Els all winning well into their fifth decade.

But this theory presumes that Woods, at 42, is struggling to keep pace with the musclebound young pretenders, when the evidence suggests quite the contrary. Despite surgery in his back, Woods has somehow found a way to increase his clubhead speed, hitting one of his three-irons in a practice round here 333 yards.

This owes much to the summer heat that has left Carnoustie's fairways as arid as the Atacama. Just how Woods likes it then. Famously, in 2006, he sealed victory at a hard-baked Hoylake despite not reaching for the driver once all week. There has seldom been a golfer to rival him for strategic intelligence.

While Rory McIlroy believes he can conquer the course with monstrous power off the tee, Woods prefers to tackle the challenge with precision.

"It can get quick," he said. "I'm not going to hit that many long clubs off the tees."

Be in no doubt how seriously Woods is taking this test. Previously at The Open, he has dipped in for a few practice holes here and there, but this year he has made a point of playing a full 18.

Having finished fourth at his last appearance in Washington three weeks ago, he is optimistic about how he can perform.

"I feel like I have a better understanding of my game, my body and my swing, much more than I did at Augusta," he said. "I've put myself up there in contention. I just need to play some cleaner golf, and who knows?"

Back when he could barely walk, Woods had a line for his new-found state of mind. "Everything beyond this," he declared, "will be gravy."

These days, the ferocious champion fixated on winning has morphed into a man thankful just to turn up. While the Tiger remains on the prowl, his claws, one senses, have lost their sharpness.

Meanwhile, World No.1 Dustin Johnson may have dominated the rankings over the last 17 months but close friend Brooks Koepka has overtaken him when it comes to Majors.

Despite the 34-year-old having a head start courtesy of his 2016 US Open win, Koepka's back-to-back victories in the same event have left the big-hitting Ryder Cup star trailing.

The pair played together in the final round at Shinnecock Hills last month where Koepka came out on top after Johnson lost a four-shot lead on Saturday when course conditions became almost unplayable.

"I was happy for him. If it wasn't going to be me, I was glad he won," said Johnson, who since February 2017 has spent all but four weeks in May and June this year at the top of the world rankings.

"We train a lot together, and so we push each other in the gym and play a lot of golf together.

"I'm struggling a little bit with the putter, but I don't feel like I'm struggling putting.

"There's been quite a few tournaments where if I just putt pretty well on the weekend, then I win.

"But that's the name of the game. You've got to get it in the hole."

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