Tiger Woods wooing Brooks Koepka ahead of the Open in struggle to surpass Jack Nicklaus




 

Given how the clock is ticking on Tiger Woods' quest to overhaul Jack Nicklaus as the most prolific major champion of all, he has decided this week to ask Brooks Koepka, a man hard-wired for great feats on the grandest stage, for some advice. Of the past nine majors, Koepka has won four, the same number that Woods needs to surpass Nicklaus's record of 18, a benchmark that he has spent half his life trying to eclipse.

"I'll tell you a funny story," Woods said. "I texted Brooksie, 'Congratulations on another great finish'. What he has done in the last four major championships has been just unbelievable. To be so consistent, so solid. He has been in contention to win every one of them. And I said, 'Hey, dude, do you mind if I tag along and play a practice round?' I've heard nothing back."

Koepka is one of few peers by whom Woods feels genuinely inspired. The fist-bump and embrace that they exchanged outside the Augusta clubhouse this year, after the younger man came within one shot of sabotaging Woods' seismic Masters triumph, told you as much. Woods perceives Koepka, a brawny bomber who terrifies rivals as much by his long hitting as his fearsome mental strength, as the embodiment of the qualities with which he once revolutionised the game. In the 3½ months since Woods' fifth Green Jacket, though, it is Koepka who has held the advantage, winning the USPGA with some Tiger-esque front-running and pushing US Open victor Gary Woodland the closest of anyone in his hunt for a third straight national championship.

Woods, truth be told, has been a footnote ever since sealing his 15th major, a moment that had been expected to reignite his pursuit of Nicklaus. In the first 12 weeks of this season, Woods played 25 rounds of competitive golf to ensure that he felt match-fit for Augusta. But in the subsequent 12 weeks he has managed just 10, six of them in majors.

What is wrong? Has Woods, heaven forbid, aggravated an injury? He reflected that he had needed to wake at 3am before his final round at the Masters, simply to guarantee that his back, still a source of concern after his spinal fusion operation, would be ready for the rigours of an earlier-than-scheduled tee time. When he appeared two weeks later for a TV interview at a Florida studio, his gait appeared awkward and uncomfortable. The real answer might be stranger yet: that Woods, still barely able to comprehend the fact that he achieved major glory after a decade of scandal and pain, has become too happy for his own good. While golf has waited 20 years to see a more affable, reflective version of Woods, there are growing suggestions that his newfound serenity is softening his famously ironclad will to win.

Paul Azinger, the former United States Ryder Cup captain, said: "Don't get me wrong, Tiger has been happy before in the moment, celebrating big shots. But with this Masters [win], I don't think he has moved on yet. That was such a mountaintop experience, I think it's going to be hard for Tiger to win anything ever again."

It is an intriguing analysis, even if the "Tiger will never win another one" school of thought has been rendered redundant forever more. Woods would never acknowledge any dimming of his hunger for more titles, but he did concede yesterday that the maelstrom of his Masters experience had left him psychologically spent.

"It took a lot out of me," he said. "That course puts so much stress on the system. It seemed that seven, eight guys had a chance to win the tournament with only six, seven holes to play. So it became very crowded. I was reading the leaderboard all the time, trying to figure out what the winning number was going to be, who was on what hole. My mum was still around, and now my kids were, too. It was a very emotional week, and one that I keep reliving. It's hard to believe that I pulled it off, and I ended up winning the tournament."

With memories of the win so fresh, Woods has found himself mobbed in Portrush to an extent not seen since his early Noughties pomp, when he would stride down the fairways with a phalanx of private security men in matching Nike tops. He has long had a fondness for Northern Ireland, having once travelled here with his friends Payne Stewart and Mark O'Meara for pre-Open practice rounds at Royal County Down. The signs on this visit are inauspicious: Woods has looked unusually errant on his few forays around Portrush this week, a sure-fire recipe for a missed cut with penal, tangly rough ready to catch those veering even slightly from the fairways.

It is at times like these that Woods could channel the style of Koepka, a model of metronomic precision. At 43, he is unlikely ever to show the same athleticism as a player 14 years his junior. But he will need to emulate more than a fraction of Koepka's accuracy if he is to stun the world once more.

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