Cold-blooded genius

Tiger Woods proved at the British Open that he is perhaps the scariest and brightest athlete in the business, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Through four days at Royal Liverpool, Tiger Woods' face was stretched almost painfully taut with concentration, like skin on a drum, not a ripple of suggestion of what swirled within. The grim reaper in polished Nike shoes. Then, abruptly, when it was over, and he had won the British Open, his face crumpled like the earth in a quake, holding on to his caddie till the emotional tremors had passed. A cold man was weeping hot tears for a father whose embrace he would no longer feel.

A commentator said the tears were good, for it showed his human side. As if what we had seen for four days was some icy, mechanical beast, some perfectly programmed golfing machine. Darth Vader, a golf writer aptly dubbed him. But only the truly exceptional can create this illusion, can produce such control of emotion and efficiency of shot, day after detached day, that you forget they are human.

Later, in his victory speech, Woods was generous to Chris DiMarco, who had lost his mother recently, but on the course no sympathy was offered. DiMarco lost in a play-off to him at the Masters last year, and this year, having come second again, he joked, "Hey, Tiger, would you give me a little chance for once?"

No. No chance. Not ever. Not for anything. This man is a cold-blooded genius. It's what his father made him. It's why he wins. It's why he took home his 11th major since 1997. It's why Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors no longer rest in the untouchable realms of the mythological. It's why all the talk about Fab Four and Fantastic Five is downright bogus considering he has as many majors as Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen put together.

This win was more than a mere addition to his major collection, for Tiger it was a paean to his finest teacher. His father. Earl Woods may have been a pushy parent, too pushy some might say, just pushy enough others might argue else Eldrich Woods would be just another 30-year-old computer technician in California with a tiger-striped mousepad. But, looking down, Earl would have enjoyed the Open, for his son demonstrated that few scarier or brighter athletes are to be currently found within our species.

When Tiger was a boy, Earl Woods would rattle change in his pocket when his son practised. He would cough and move and shout, as if to say, if you can keep your focus pure, your concentration tightly leashed despite these distractions, then others stand no chance. As a black man in a mostly white sport, Tiger would face other indignities growing up, but he would wear them, manage them, steel himself.

Tiger's failure to be intimidated has itself become an intimidation. And it can be unnerving walking four hours with a man who will eat your heart, no cutlery required. Golf is unusual for the contest lies with the course, the winds, the conditions, the self, rarely with another man. But Tiger, because he's so sure, so vulgarly gifted, so remote, he affects people's equilibrium, his presence makes for the second guess, his aloofness causes a twitch in the putting hand, his record makes them go for too much.

This is not fiction. Sergio Garcia has a stunning seven-under 65 in the third round at the Open, which means he plays in the final grouping with Tiger on the fourth day. Now, even though Tiger does not look at him sometimes, Garcia will feel his challenging gaze, will wonder, "Can I beat this monster of a player?" Apparently not. Garcia shoots 73, his worst round of the tournament.

He need not blush, better men have folded in the shadow of Woods. In the 11 majors Tiger has won, on eight occasions his opponents have produced their worst scores of the four days when alongside him in the final round.

And not your everyday practitioners. But men like Mike Weir, David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen, Jose Maria Olazabal. Men who have won majors themselves. Who have worn pressure, but just can't wear the Tiger. Imagine producing your worst of the tournament when only your very best might do for victory? Imagine how it bruises self-belief? Imagine how it empowers Tiger?

Tiger has fine hands and you can see that in the Nike ad where he bounces the ball on the club forever; he has the great athlete's two-punch combination of elasticity and muscle; but most tellingly, he has a brain that's a factory for dynamic golfing ideas.

He is one of those people who owns a preternatural feel for sport, a sort of intuitive understanding of how a ball will bounce and spin and stop, an instinctive idea about what shot to play, a relationship with the game that transcends the normal.

In the enormously informative 'Tiger Woods: The Championship Years,' Tim Rosaforte writes that when Tiger was doing some testing years ago, using a launch monitor that can measure club-head speed, launch angle and spin rate, he "was so adroit with his golf swing that he could give the readings without even looking at the launch monitor".

He would say the next shot the spin rate will be 400rpms more, or that the swing speed will be 5mph less, and he would be right! He knew.

In the Open, he confirmed this, that more than art he is a student of science. He may look a red-shirted big-hitting pirate but this a cerebral warrior, and at the Open he won by plotting his way across the course like a finicky accountant. It was one of the most compelling tactical ploys golf has recently witnessed.

Woods can still cross a continent with a drive off the tee, but if he's long he's also crooked, as accurate as a novice fireman with a pressure hose. With bunkers (whose only escape route sometimes is sideways or backwards) standing like doleful sentinels on either side of the narrow Royal Liverpool fairways, inexactness would be brutally punished. What to do? He put away his driver, his biggest club. It was astonishing.

"As I was playing the course (in practice), I would hit a couple of drives and the drive would go 350, 370 yards," Woods explained. "How can you control that out here? ... So I just felt in the end if you stayed out of the bunkers this entire week and had a decent week on the green .... I would be in contention."

Tiger was sacrificing distance to gain control, hitting long irons (easier to be exact with, but 50 metres shorter than his opponents) off the tee, which kept him out of the fairway bunkers. It meant he then had to hit long irons onto greens, from 230 yards out often, but so sure was he, rarely did he miss a green. It meant also that he often landed 40-50 feet from the hole (the closer you are to the green, the easier to hit it closer to the pin), but so certain was he of his putting it did not matter.

It was a startlingly conservative strategy, yet also a triumph of imagination and a masterpiece of confidence. No one else thought of this; no one else in the field thought to copy him either.

Perhaps only Woods did it because only Woods could do it, and in a way this was akin to Sachin Tendulkar forsaking the entire off-side for most of his double century against Australia in Sydney 2003-04.

To win a major without a driver, to score 241 runs without using one side of the field, is beyond the ordinary player, it is beyond even the good player. Only the incomparable can construct the incredible. It is the cold calculation of genius.

Asked later, what his father might have thought of his win, Tiger said: "He would have been very proud of me. He was always on my case about thinking my way round the golf course and not letting my emotions get the better of me; to plot my way around; and that if I had to deviate from a game plan to make sure it was the right decision."

Tiger Woods' greatness requires no confirmation, but victory suggested again that this man could be the most interesting athlete alive. Some might demur. But figure this. Despite playing what is predominantly a white man's game in America, which is not affordable to all, which is played by only a minute percentage of the globe, which does not include physical contact or motion, he has made himself the most recognisable athlete in the world.