What is wrong with Tiger Woods? That is the question obsessing many observers here in the build-up to the Open Championship, with Europe’s former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley adding his name to the growing chorus who are confused and concerned.
Woods, 43, has only played 10 competitive rounds since spectacularly winning his first major in 11 years at the Masters in April - and six of those have been at the USPGA and US Open, where he missed the cut and tied for 21st respectively.
Woods eschewed the chance to take in a warm-up event before Royal Portrush’s first Open in 68 years - electing for a two-week family vacation to Thailand instead - and has looked sluggish in practice here. In light of this McGinley’s misgivings are eminently understandable, particularly because of the four back operations he has undergone in the past three years.
“I don’t know what’s going on with Tiger,” McGinley, here as a Sky Sports analyst, said. “His schedule doesn’t make a lot of sense – in fact, to play just one tournament outside the majors makes no sense at all to me, unless he’s got something else going on that we don’t know about.
“We don’t know where he is with his fitness, we don’t know where he is with his health – we just don’t know a whole lot about anything to do with him at the moment. But the way he’s planned his schedule, it’s easy to think there must be something amiss.”
When arriving on Sunday and after having his first round ever at Portrush, Woods was adamant that he was always planning to scale down his tournaments and that the break will “do my game good”. Yet that has hardly stopped the conjecture that has built since he decided to skip straight from the Masters to the USPGA because of fatigue and soreness.
“I don’t know whether winning the Masters is a factor, because winning shouldn’t take that much out of you,“ McGinley said, It should enthuse you, and move you forward. When you win you want to keep playing, keep riding that wave.
“Playing just one tournament outside the majors, and to have such huge breaks - I can’t see how that helps. The question is whether he is giving himself the best opportunity to win again? And you would have to say no.
“As great a competitor as he is you still need to cut your teeth in regular events to prep yourself for the majors. He has chosen not to do that and I’m sure he will be asked why when he faces the media on Tuesday.”
On Monday, Woods went out with Ryder Cup teammates Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler and his swing appeared much smoother than on Sunday, when he teed it up just a few hours after an overnight from Florida. There was even the first Tiger roar of the week, when he birdied the 18th, courtesy of a driver and nine iron to 15 feet.
Woods’s TaylorMade driver was one of those selected for testing by the R&A - it apparently passed the procedures checking the spring-like effect of the club face - although he might be limiting its use this week anyway. His intention to play “stingers” off the tee has been revealed by the new TaylorMade UDI two iron in his bag. UDI stands for “Ultimate Driving Iron”.
The tee-times for the first two rounds were released on Monday and Woods will face a long wait on Thursday until his tournament begins at 3.10pm. Woods has been drawn alongside Patrick Reed, who he played with on Sunday, and Matt Wallace.
The Englishman called the grouping “a dream come true”. But then, three years ago when he did not even have a European Tour card, this would have been beyond the fantasies of the 29-year-old from London.
“When I was told, I thought it was a wind-up,” Wallace, the world No 23, said. “What I have said to my team is this is the culmination for me for all the work I have done - the reward is to play in an Open Championship with Tiger Woods. It’s only my second Open and it will be a proud moment.
“Hopefully I can stick to my gameplan, and produce in front of him. He is my hero and it caps everything. It is probably the biggest moment in my career to date and hopefully It can kick me on for the rest of my career.”
It is an understatement to say that Wallace does not lack for confidence and neither should he with a third and 12th at the USPGA and US Open. “I had a level-par weekend, playing with Brooks [Koepka, the world No 1] at the US Open and I was really happy with my attitude there,” he said. “I was three-over after nine holes and managed to eagle the last to shoot level par.
“Did I come off the course thinking I could beat Brooks? Yeah I did. I'd like to go toe-to-toe with him at a major or a Ryder Cup where I feel like I could win. I feel that I'm ready to win a major. Will it be this year? Who knows? But I do see myself winning a major within hopefully the next few years.”
Darren Clarke, the 2011 champion, who owns a house overlooking Royal Portrush will tee-off first at 6.35am, while another Ulsterman in Rory McIlroy plays alongside England’s Paul Casey and US Open champion Gary Woodland at 10.09am.