You would have thought Tigermania would be a thing of the past by now. After all, Tiger Woods hasn't won a major tournament since the first week of April. He hasn't won any tournament since June 3. He has finished out of the top 10 in three consecutive tournaments for the first time in three years.
I hesitate to use the S-word, considering that he froze out sportswriters who said he was in a slump earlier this year, before he won four of five tournaments. But you have to wonder if this isn't the real deal.
The British, who invented golf, don't seem to think so. At least, they didn't before Woods shot an even-par 71 in the first round Thursday--six shots behind leader Colin Montgomerie--in the tournament they refer to merely as "the Open."
Woods was relaxed, having spent last week fly-fishing in Ireland. (Forget that he was engaged in the same hobby, in Utah, the week of his unremarkable U.S. Open. Why does he like fly-fishing so much? "Not too many fish ask for your autograph," he says.)
Woods was eager. He arrived at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club for a practice round Tuesday at sunrise, changed into his golf shoes in the parking lot and played four holes before the clubhouse opened at 7 a.m. He was confident. Denmark's Thomas Bjorn said Woods had his stride back.
"I usually take the same steps," Woods said, amused.
He also said he didn't pay much attention when his coach, Butch Harmon, was quoted saying that Woods could win blindfolded. But he acknowledged that Harmon had helped him relocate his swing.
"It was something very small, which led to other breakdowns," Woods said. "I've fixed it. I'm starting to hit the ball the way I know I can."
The bookies installed him as an overwhelming favorite to become the first player to successfully defend his championship since Tom Watson in 1983. One, Paddy Power of Ireland, said he will give your money back if you bet on someone other than Woods and that player doesn't win the tournament.
Such judgment was reinforced when a local tabloid, which will use any excuse to publish a photograph of a voluptuous woman, asked a beauty queen about Woods' chances.
"I think he's going to be hard to beat," Miss Blackpool said.
It hardly seemed like a fair fight, Woods versus Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Critics of the little links course on the northwest coast of England say that it is toothless, except when assisted by the cold, capricious winds off the nearby Irish Sea, and that it can no longer protect itself against the length and precision of modern golfers and their high-tech equipment.
Thank the course for its many years of service and give it a gold watch, they say, arguing that it should be retired from the Open rotation.
If they prevail, it will be remembered fondly by those who love golf history.
The club is playing host to its 10th British Open since 1926, when Bobby Jones won with a second shot out of a terrible lie on the 71st hole that landed a few feet from the cup and led to a birdie. A plaque on the 17th hole commemorates the shot.
(That was the first year admission was charged. Jones left the course for lunch between the two final rounds--played on the same day--and forgot to bring his player's badge when he returned. He had to pay to get back in.)
There is a movement afoot to put a second plaque on the 16th hole in tribute to Seve Ballesteros' shot from a temporary car park in the final round that led to his 1979 victory. He won again here in 1988.
When he won in 1974, Gary Player had to play a shot on the 18th green in the final round left-handed from beside the clubhouse wall. Bob Charles is still the only natural left-hander to win a major with his victory here in 1963. Tony Jacklin's win here in 1969 is credited with igniting the resurgence of British golf.
Uniquely for a major championship, the first hole is a par three. The 18th green is defended by eight traps, which inspired the late English golf writer, Pat Ward Thomas, to observe, "It is not much of a target for a driver when the ambition of a lifetime is in sight."
But the course is bordered on one side by railroad tracks leading to Blackpool and on three sides by neighborhoods. There is no room for the 6,905-yard course to grow. It can't be Tiger-proofed.
Or at least that's the theory.
Conventional wisdom was that the course could maintain its dignity only if the conditions were inclement, which, considering its location, is always a possibility. Mark Twain once said the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. I presume he never went to northern England in July.
Not long before the first group teed off at 7 a.m., the temperature was 45 degrees. The high Thursday was 66. But although the day was breezy, the wind direction remained consistent. Players can live with that.
Except for Montgomerie's 65, no one shot a superb score. But many players shot par or better.
Woods was among them, barely.
It's only one round, but, so far, Royal Lytham is holding its own. The course did not grow teeth since Tom Lehman won here in 1996 at 13 under par--Woods shot 66 in the second round and finished as low amateur, with the realization it was time for him to turn pro. But it did grow bunkers.
It already had 182. Now it has 196. One, about 300 yards from the tee on the 15th hole, is shaped like a Nike swoosh. Sheerly coincidental, club officials say.
Woods didn't find that bunker Thursday, but, one year after he spent no time in the sand during his British Open victory at St. Andrews, he did find others.
"I think it was four or five today," he said.
"Six," someone corrected.
"Between four and six," Woods conceded.
He'd rather have been fishing.
Randy Harvey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.