Woods to really cut loose on back nine

 

GOLF/Tiger Woods at 30: Coming to the turn at 30, the world number one is out to set records and his feats will only be limited by his desire, writes Laurence Donegan

Tiger Woods is temperamentally inclined towards self-improvement rather than self-pity, so it is safe to assume that if he allowed himself any contemplative moments on his 30th birthday yesterday they were not wasted pondering his sporting mortality.

The world number one has a healthy interest in his past, but an even healthier appetite for the future.

"If you look at a lot of guys' careers, it looks as if their peak years are in their 30s," he said this month.

"Hopefully, my 30s will be even better than my 20s. That would be pretty neat. I think I can make it."

Of course, the psychological demands of golf at the highest level require that no man expresses even a modicum of self-doubt, lest thought manifest itself in deed, but in Woods's case it seems there is none. When asked whether he could improve on the last, unimaginably brilliant 10 years, it seemed obvious to him and to everyone else who comes within his orbit that he could.

Such confidence is unusual in a sport so capricious as golf, but it is not misplaced, not least because of what has happened since he made his professional debut at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open at the age of 20. Then, Woods's ambitions stretched no further than attempting to win his PGA Tour card.

"I was praying not to go to qualifying school," he said.

Within seven weeks, he had won two PGA tournaments. Seven months later he had won the Masters by a record margin.

Since that remarkable week at Augusta, Woods has won nine more majors, including two British Open Championships at St Andrews, and mopped up 48 victories on the PGA Tour in the US, as well as 17 other wins around the world.

That record speaks eloquently enough about his performances on the course, but it fails to capture fully his dominance off it.

Other players have made fortunes and won majors since 1996, but none has come close to capturing the public's imagination in the way Woods has, not even the combustible John Daly or Colin Montgomerie.

When US Tour commissioner Tim Fincham comes to negotiate a billion-dollar television deal next year, he will be speaking about the commercial worth of every player, but he and the television companies will know there is only one really worth the money demanded. The fact is when Woods is on screen, television audiences multiply fourfold. The fact is when Woods is taking part in a tournament, that tournament acquires gravitas and meaning.

The public fascination will intensify over the next few years as he pursues the only record that he truly cares about: the 18 professional major victories accrued by Jack Nicklaus. Even in the digital era, when the public's gaze will become ever more fragmented, the compelling narrative provided by Woods's chase will ensure professional golf is not cast aside like some sporting Rubik's Cube.

The question, however, remains: will he actually overcome Nicklaus's benchmark? On the face it, the answer requires little contemplation.

As Woods himself said, most of the great players did not reach their peak until passing the age of 30. Nicklaus himself won four majors between the age of 31 and 33, and six after he was 35, including the 1986 Masters, when he was 46 years old.

Arnold Palmer was another who did not blossom fully until the second half of his career, winning six of his seven majors after turning 30. Both men have little doubt Woods has yet to reach his peak, for reasons that are as much physiological as historical.

"You go from pure strength to a more managed strength," Palmer said recently about the ageing process and its effects on golfers.

"Tiger will have the strength he always had, but he'll be able to manage it better, so he has both length and control together. That will lead him to play even better golf."

Nicklaus agrees. "Maturity plays a great part in golf. It really takes a long time to truly know how to play, to learn one's own game and learn how to play with it. Some players learn earlier, but even then they tend to peak later. I can't imagine Tiger being any different. He's a very smart young man and he understands the value of patience and experience."

Barring serious injury or the arrival of an as-yet-unidentified golfing genius, all that appears to stand between Woods and the fulfilment of such predictions are his own performances and desires. If that is the case, the deal is all but closed.

Like any golfer, he is prone to the vagaries of form, but unlike any other golfer he appears immune to its effects.

Even when he plays badly, as he did for spells during this year's Masters, he still wins. And when he plays very badly indeed, as he did in the first of this year's majors, the US PGA at Baltusrol, he is still a contender.

Like every other golfer, he has suffered through slumps (although in his case the term must be applied only relatively), but unlike others these slumps have been self-induced - the by-product of major swing overhauls he has deemed necessary to reach a higher plane.

It is this pursuit of perfection, this unbreakable spirit, that has shaped Tiger Woods over the last decade and seems destined to shape him over the next.

Guardian Service