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Golf’s royalty descends on St Andrews this week for the 150th Open Championship, providing some much-needed respite for a sport currently embroiled in a civil war.
As LIV Golf lurks in the shadows, the battle for the Claret Jug provides a much-needed shot of purity. The tournament is engulfed in history; the esteemed names from the past, many of whom have gathered to celebrate everything the Champion Golfer of the Year stands for, provides a befitting reminder of the priceless reward the game still has to offer.
Tiger Woods, golf’s knight in shining armour, is fit, beaming from ear to ear after squeezing 58 holes into barely four days leading up to lights out on Thursday. Like a kid in a candy shop, Woods has attracted a legion of supporters who have descended on this little corner of the east coast of Scotland, some from as far as Argentina, just to capture perhaps a last glimpse of one of the greatest still confident he can summon his legendary best.
There has been a cutting tone to the adulation Woods has shown towards the Old Course though; thrilled and grateful to play, of course, but also conscious of his role in golf’s bitter struggle and the power his words hold.
It has led to a stark warning to those defecting to LIV Golf, the uncertainty surrounding world ranking points and the sacrifices they could be making. Those at risk may want to soak up this glorious occasion given their uncertain future in the majors.
"Who knows what’s going to happen in the near future with world-ranking points, the criteria for entering major championships? Some of these players may not ever get a chance to play in major championships,” Woods remarked. "That is a possibility, that some players will never, ever get a chance to experience this right here.”
Woods is a factor this week and not merely a distraction to celebrate The R&A’s party seven years in the making. His nous and savviness from two iconic victories around the Old Course in 2000 and 2005, make for a fascinating week. It is staggering to watch Woods, 506 days after a career-threatening car accident, strike such a bullish presence in pursuit of a 16th major.
But after Augusta, this may be his best opportunity to win, a place where mastering the curvature of each vast green and charming one’s ball to resist more than 100 bunkers, a feat famously accomplished in 2000, will prove pivotal.
There are fears that the field could run riot without that familiar Scottish gale, but the unique challenge makes for a fascinating experience during golf’s fleeting dance along the links. One contender, Justin Thomas, is fixated on the bunkers and the likelihood that they will torment many a player this week to leave their hopes and dreams in pieces.
“These are the most penal bunkers of any Open Championship I’ve played in,” said the two-time major winner. “I haven’t seen many [bunkers this week] that aren’t a chip-out, or hitting it out sideways.
“Even in the fairways, it will drop straight down, rather than roll to the middle. It’s a big learning experience, just how differently you can play this golf course each time and the bizarre lines you can take.”
Thomas is a student of the game, pairing courses to iconic shots and moments. His eyes lit up this week discussing the Old Course, notably when Woods surged to an eight-shot victory in 2000 while adding colour commentary after each shot to his caddie Steve Williams: “Is that the one you’re talking about?”
— The Open (@TheOpen) December 29, 2020
There are contenders galore: defending champion Collin Morikawa, former Open champions Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, golf’s unassuming world No1 and Masters champion Scottie Scheffler and even a new breed led by last month’s US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick. While there is a distinct chance of a maiden winner as the field’s form man, Xander Schauffele, simmers after back-to-back wins, including last week’s Scottish Open, heading into this week.
Jon Rahm could add another Spanish chapter to the rich history at St Andrews too, following the inspirational Seve Ballesteros and that passionate fist pump to clinch victory in 1984.
“St Andrews has a connection with the past that you don’t really get in many other places and that’s what makes it so special,” Rahm told The Independent. “It’s a very different feeling when you stand on that 18th green.”
There will be 290,000 fans descending on St Andrews this week, which would make it the third biggest city in Scotland, in a town that houses just over 18,000 residents on the east coast of Fife. This astonishing interest is likely to whip up a frenzy; unscripted drama will follow, capturing the very best the sport can offer just when it needed it most.