Woods returns to the scene where he learned to be a pro

Posted: Sunday, July 15, 2001

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- Earl Woods walked along the fairways of Royal Lytham & St. Annes with silent appreciation, watching his son come of age.

It wasn't a particular shot by Tiger Woods, such as a 6-iron from 218 yards out of a fairway bunker to a pin tucked behind the water, or a 2-iron that whistles into a stiff wind and never climbs higher than 15 feet.

More significant than the score that day -- a 5-under 66 in the second round of the 1996 British Open -- was how it was achieved.

''That round, it all made sense to him,'' Earl Woods said. ''He found what it was like to play like a pro, and he found that he had the ability to go out and shoot low. I watched it happen. I watched him mature right in front of my eyes.

''This was his coming-out party.''

Tiger Woods followed that with rounds of 70-70 and tied for 22nd in his last major as an amateur. A month later, after winning a record third straight U.S. Amateur, he turned pro and has been turning heads ever since.

Woods returns to Royal Lytham as the defending champion of the British Open, which begins Thursday.

He made history last year at St. Andrews, becoming the youngest man to win the career Grand Slam with a 19-under 279, the lowest score in relation to par in the 140 years that major championships have been played.

Nothing that spectacular awaits at Lytham, the links course along the western coast of England.

After making it a clean sweep of the majors by winning the Masters, Woods streak of four straight majors -- as well as his hopes for a real Grand Slam -- ended at the U.S. Open.

For Woods, Lytham is merely a memory of when he first began to blossom.

''I kind of had an inkling that I could probably play the game at the next level,'' Woods said. ''I had made cuts in majors, but I hadn't played well. That second round ... I made eight birdies in 11 holes, kind of blitzed them there for a little bit.''

Turns out he was just getting warmed up.

Coming into the British Open, Woods has won six of the 18 majors he has played as a pro and has set 72-hole scoring records in every major.

He has won 34 times around the world, a winning percentage that approaches a staggering 30 percent.

''There's nothing not to like about him, except for the fact he's smoking all of us,'' said Paul Azinger, one of 25 guys who have finished second to Woods the past five years.

Golf spent nearly 20 years looking for the next dominant player. A tougher search might be finding a rival for Woods.

One possibility is Sergio Garcia, who also has some history at Lytham.

He made his British Open debut in 1996 and was 2 under through the first seven holes before finding pot bunkers and other assorted problems. He missed the cut.

''I was only 16, and I was so nervous on the first tee I thought I wasn't going to be able to hit the ball,'' Garcia said.

That hasn't been a problem lately. Garcia has won twice in the past three months on the PGA Tour, contended at the U.S. Open and returns to a Lytham course that has been kind to flamboyant Spaniards.

In 1979, 22-year-old Seve Ballesteros won his first major with a shot that still ranks among the most memorable at golf's oldest championship. From a temporary parking lot on the 16th hole, Ballesteros reached the front of the green and holed a 30-footer for birdie on his way to victory over Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw.

Nine years later, Ballesteros won again with a 9-iron shot that landed inches from the same hole to conclude a thrilling duel against Nick Price.

''I feel like I am ready,'' Garcia said. ''I am hitting the ball better. I am putting better. And I am having better breaks.''

Woods didn't need many breaks last year.

He won the U.S. Open and British Open by a combined 23 strokes and also took the PGA, becoming the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three majors in a year. Then he added an 11-stroke victory at the World Golf Championship.

He is not unbeatable, however.

While Woods won three straight events culminating with his historic Masters -- the third straight year he has put together such a streak -- he comes into the British Open after finishing out of the top 10 in his past three tournaments.

There was talk about a sore Achilles' tendon at Southern Hills, something neither Woods nor anyone else in his camp would confirm. There was a look of fatigue at the Buick Classic and the Western Open.

And there are plenty of others who are just as hungry.

Phil Mickelson lacks only a major to be considered one of the best of his generation.

Twice this year he has given himself chances going into the final round of a major -- one shot back at the Masters, two back at the U.S. Open -- only to fall helplessly behind.

At least he proved he can close out victories, holding on at Hartford after losing final-round leads on three other occasions.

Asked if that should put an end to talk he can't win, Mickelson replied, ''I don't think it's really squelched talk. I think it's postponed it for a week or two.''

''What I need to do is come through in a major championship,'' he said. ''I feel as though I keep getting closer.''

Woods can't win all four majors in the same year, but he can take another step in his rapid climb to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors.

The fact he already has six of them gives Woods a huge advantage over those trying to win their first -- from Mickelson and David Duval, to European stars Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke.

''I understand how to win those championships,'' Woods said. ''You understand what it takes coming down the stretch, how to control your emotions, how to control you game, your mind, your focus and your outlook.''

Those are lessons first formed five years ago on the links of Lytham. They have served him well.



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