FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
British Open 2023: A return to Royal Liverpool is a chance to reflect on Tiger Woods’ greatness—and his absence
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
HOYLAKE, England — Maybe it’s for the best that Tiger Woods is not here, at Royal Liverpool, where he won the 2006 Open Championship in such stirring style. He would not like the new par-3 17th hole, an uphill, into-the-wind 130-yard test with a table-top green. This can be said with certainty because as a course architect Woods liked options and as a man he has always been resistant to change, though he did make the move from the balata ball to a plastic one better than anyone. Woods is like everyone else. He likes things the way they were. The way they were when he was at his best.
Woods would be discreet in his criticism of this new 17th. Of course he would be. He might compare the RLGC’s NewHo (borrowing from the PGA Tour’s much-touted, Saudi-backed NewCo!)to the penultimate hole at TPC Sawgrass, another short par-3 where your ball must pitch on the green and stay on the green or you’re most likely making bogey or worse.
That kind of binary golf is cool for an entertainment known as golf-on-TV. Maybe it’s OK for resort play, where tourists on holiday don’t care (for one round, anyway) if their $8 golf ball is suddenly swimming with the fishes. But no golfer wants that thrill for their everyday play. And the beauty of these linksland courses on which these Opens are played is that they exist for everyday golfers. For the Open, the good people at the R&A push the tees back and that’s about it.
Tiger’s thing—one of his many things—was to watch as much of the golf telecasts as he could. You can imagine what he must have been thinking, watching Francesco Molinari play 17 on Thursday. In theory, the idea that a 130-yard hole could be the most difficult on the course (relative to par) is kind of cool, except you don’t play golf in a lab. Molinari, winner of the 2018 Open at Carnoustie while being chased by Woods, pitched the ball on the front part of the green. It was clipped and flighted. It was a shot that needed four more yards. The green’s severe false front repelled the ball and it spun back 20 yards off the green, into the yawning front bunker.
The so-called Italian Detective—he knows who did it and how it was done, all he has to do now is prove it!—made par only because he drew a clean lie and played a superb second shot, followed by a six-footer. Good golf shots come in groups of two.
Even if he was with his employee/mates—Mark Steinberg and Steve Williams and Rob McNamara and Butch Harmon (going back now)—Woods probably would have said close to nothing. To say anything is to admit defeat. The origin of it is what it is. It’s the same for everybody, it’s the same for everybody, it’s the same for everybody.
An interesting question is whether Brooks Koepka will be in uniform as a playing member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team in Italy in September. (Almost certainly.) A more interesting question is why Tiger Woods is not going to be on the team, as one of Zach Johnson’s assistant captains. Woods seems to be receding from public life more and more. He went to Los Angeles during the U.S. Open in June at the Los Angeles Country Club, but didn’t come to the course. His last sit-down press conference was at the Masters in April. He has offered no meaningful commentary on the proposed PGA Tour-LIV Golf partnership. He’s gone Hogan. He’s gone Garbo.
To a point. Earlier this week, Woods was honored by the Association of Golf Writers, the British and European version of the Golf Writers Association of America. Woods didn’t attend the AGW’s Tuesday night dinner, but he did offer comments by video and they were funny and moving and seemingly off-the-cuff, just as his superb remarks at his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame were last year.
Woods has made 22 British Open appearances. His first was in 1995, as an amateur, at the Old Course. His last—for now and who can say if there will be another one?—was last year, again at St. Andrews, when his first tee shot finished in a divot. He has won three Opens, in 2000 and 2005 at St. Andrews and his 2006 win, here at Royal Liverpool, aka Hoylake.
He told the writers’ group that “some of the greatest moments and greatest memories” of his career and his life have come at those 22 Opens. It brought to mind what Bob Jones once told the people of St. Andrews: “I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St Andrews and I would still have a rich, full life.”
Jones was in St. Andrews, wearing a suit, in a packed auditorium. Woods was staring into a camera, wearing a lime-green golf shirt, with a gray curtain behind him. There was something lonely and heartbreaking and poignant about it.
Who knows how this will go for Woods, here on out? Nobody. He will, tragically, not enjoy what Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, to speak of two other iconic American golfers, enjoyed, a long sunset, buoyed by a long marriage and a public life that was easy and natural and beneficial for all.
By all accounts, Woods is a committed father to his daughter, Sam, and son, Charlie. But the kids have their own busy lives, school and sports and friends and all the rest. Woods has his impressive foundation work, his design business, various other business ventures. He has a yacht, a plane, an estate, three things he certainly didn’t have while growing up.
Nor does he have the golfing dreams he had growing up. His career, what he did on the course, exceeded those dreams. What he has now is the rest of his life. He’s 47.
There was something about his play here in 2006. We all remember his reaction, falling into his caddie’s arms, and then his wife’s arms, when it was over. His father, Earl, had died 10 weeks earlier. Steve Williams and Elin Nordegren were pillars in his life then. Now they are not. What would he give to go back? Not even Woods can say.
But the thing that made the greatest impression was his play, the true greatness of it, the athleticism and intelligence. He called the week “probably the most gratifying” of all his Open weeks. His play had another dimension to it. It was forever. These Opens–they are forever. Golf’s oldest championship, and its best.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com