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With Tiger Woods’ victory in the Masters dominating not just the sport pages but the front pages of newspapers across the world, it highlighted how he is perhaps the biggest show in sport.
Three months on from that amazing redemption story, Tiger heads to Portrush as the man the average punter, aside from cheering on the home golfers, most desperately wants to see.
Without a major in Ireland in 68 years and Woods never playing in the Irish Open, Woods’ competitive appearances in Ireland have been limited, but any appearance has always brought great fanfare and public attention.
The first mention of Tiger Woods visiting Ireland for golf came in the year of his famous 12-shot Masters victory that launched him into the public sphere. It had been a tradition of Tom Watson to prepare for the Open Championship by playing the links of Ireland in the weeks before, particularly Portmarnock and his personal favourite Ballybunion. When Woods played a skins match with Watson, Fred Couples and John Daly in 1997, the idea of him taking on Ireland’s greatest links courses in preparation for the Major was first floated.
Playing golf in Co Kerry was also encouraged by his good friend and mentor Mark O’Meara, who had enjoyed a trip to Waterville with his family the previous year. Irish professional Liam Higgins, who knew Tiger in Isleworth, Florida where he was based, was also said to be influential.
By 1998, there was also the feeling that Woods needed to better familiarise himself with links golf if he was ever going to be a great champion of the game. Dermot Gilleece wrote in the Irish Times of Tiger’s naivety on links courses in his first year as a pro, where some of his errors at Royal Troon included a two iron out of a thick lie where the ball only advanced a foot or two and an eight iron that flew the green by more than 30 yards. These were “ill-conceived decisions that might have been tempered had he and his caddie bothered to familiarise themselves with the idiosyncratic vagaries of links golf”, Gilleece wrote.
So off Tiger set for the links of Ireland in early July 1998, flying in by helicopter with O’Meara and businessmen JP McManus and Dermot Desmond, who were familiar to Woods because their regular visits to Isleworth. Woods’ travelling group also included caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowen, three-time major winner Payne Stewart, tennis player Todd Woodbridge and his friend Mike Gutierrez. Split into two fourballs playing a scramble, the group came and went with little notice and minimum of fuss, with only about 200 people watching them.
The travelling group then rolled into Ballybunion, where the trip was notable for Payne Stewart getting a hole-in-one at the third hole. Appearing on the trip was worth $150,000 for Woods, according to a report from Golfweek at the time.
With Mark O’Meara winning the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale a few weeks later, playing in Ireland in preparation for the Open quickly became popular with PGA Tour professionals. Jim Furyk had played in Ireland before the Open, and finished fourth, while Tiger had improved his result of tied 24th to finish solo third at Birkdale.
Thus joining Woods, Stewart and O’Meara in 1999 on their American sojourn was Woods’ main rival at the top of the world rankings at the time, David Duval, two-time US Open champion Lee Janzen and Australian PGA Tour golfer Stuart Appleby. Tiger, getting a taste for the pleasures of Waterville, arrived and spent the day fishing at the famous salmon pool at Waterville House on his first day before taking to the links at Waterville for the second time. All but Janzen of the group took part in scrambles with Desmond and McManus, before being conferred with honorary life memberships.
Then off it was for the group of luminaries to the spectacular Old Head of Kinsale. A crowd of no more than 100 watched on in a dense fog as a six-ball of the world’s best players hit off at the Cork venue. “Everyone who hasn’t won a USPGA Tour event, please keep to this side,” the crowd were told amid good-natured camaraderie between the players and onlookers.
Woods was entering a peak of golf greater than anyone who had ever played the game and had arrived having won the Western Open the previous week, his fourth of nine worldwide victories in 1999. He showed how he could inspire awe with his play on the 10th hole, where he hit a drive and a 9 iron downwind to 8 foot and sank the putt for eagle.
Tiger’s abiding memory of the round was the fog, and he called Old Head the hardest course he had played in Ireland so far because “we couldn’t see more than 100 yards”.
“The cliffs are great until you walk up close to them, then you see there’s a 300-foot drop off. It is not too hard to walk right off a cliff there.”
Woods was quickly learning about the vagaries of links golf although he wouldn’t conquer the Open Championship just yet, notching another major top 10 at Carnoustie in incredibly tough conditions where +10 was good enough for tied seventh place.
When July arrived in 2000, Woods was the biggest story in golf after his record-breaking 15-shot victory at the US Open at Pebble Beach the previous month. Sadly, there was no Payne Stewart for the Irish trip this year, as the American golfer tragically died in a plane crash at just 42. Woods came back to Waterville to honour Stewart.
“It’s great to be back in Ireland. I always enjoy coming here and I’m particularly impressed with the way Waterville are honouring Payne Stewart,” he said, referring to the bronze commemorate bust of Stewart. “Payne loved Waterville and Waterville loved Payne.”
On the course, the venue was Limerick Golf Club for his first JP McManus Pro-Am, a charity invitational run by the businessman that Tiger would participate in regularly. More than 7,000 people turned up to get a look at the world’s best player strutting his stuff. And that he did, shooting an eight-under-par round, breaking the course record by three shots. He played alongside Alan Smurfit, Michael Smurfit jnr and Pat Moore, who all paid £40,000 for the privilege.
“It’s good practice for what we may expect at St Andrews,” he said of Limerick Golf Club. “You had to work both ways in the wind and I really enjoyed it. In many ways, it had the sort of easy, relaxed feel that you get in a Wednesday pro-am back home. I just teed it up and let it go.” A week later, he took St Andrews apart, winning his first Open Championship by eight shots with a 19-under-par total.
Tiger’s trips to the south of Ireland were a regular occurrence in July from then onwards, saying it was a “wonderful way to prepare” for the Open. “Not just from a golf standpoint, but also from a spiritual standpoint. I play better after a little time off, because I can prepare in solitude and peace.”
In 2002, Woods broke another Irish course record at the Pat Ruddy-designed European Club in Co Wicklow, playing alongside Duval, O’Meara and McCarron. One of the tougher set-ups in the country, it measured 7,300 yards at the time, 300 yards longer than Muirfield where the Open would be held, but it proved no match for Woods who shot a 67 alongside Duval, O’Meara and Scott McCarron.
“This is great. This links is tough and demanding and just what I need right now,” Woods said of the course. “What wonderful optical illusions. I thought some of those par 4s were par 5s. A great links.”
In 2002, a chance to play in Ireland competitively finally came with the World Golf Championship at Mount Juliet in Co Kilkenny, with 49 of the top 50 players in the world making it one of the finest fields ever assembled on the island for a professional event. Perhaps it was no surprise when Woods opened his tournament with another course record. Playing alongside Padraig Harrington, he enjoyed the support he received from the Irish crowds.
“I was telling Paddy (Padraig) they’re not only gracious but they understand the game of golf. It’s great to play in front of galleries that are knowledgeable, and the Irish fans are certainly knowledgeable about golf,” he said.
Woods dropped his only shot of the week on the last hole, posting a 25-under-par total, winning by a single shot from Retief Goosen.
In the Irish Times, Keith Duggan wrote that Tiger’s aura “burned even brighter in the flesh”.
“When Woods does actually present himself before us in the flesh, a shimmering, ebony mirage, there is little to do but gape, slack-jawed and childlike and follow him with feet of clay as he floats through a demonstration of golf that is just beyond the borders of the comprehension of the intelligentsia of the game, let alone those with a passing interest.”
Woods would return to Mount Juliet in 2004, where he would finish ninth behind Ernie Els.
Not every trip Tiger would make to Ireland would be a roaring success however. In 2006, The K Club hosted the first Ryder Cup on Irish soil. Woods had been a regular visitor to The K Club, playing practice rounds there along with fishing in the build-up to Open Championships, but this would be his first competitive tournament.
To say the American was by far the best player in the world at the time having won his previous five strokeplay tournaments heading into the tournament, including two majors. But as he often found in the Ryder Cup, team dominance is harder to come by.
The US were given a thrashing in Straffan, Co Kildare, losing by 18.5 points to 9.5, although not exactly Woods’ fault given that he was the top scorer on the US team with 3 points out of 5. It was still a humiliating loss for the US and it felt like their week and Tiger’s week in Ireland was summed up by a moment.
Woods’ caddie Steve Williams, trying to clean his player’s 9 iron, dropped the club and towel into the lake beside the seventh green. It took a diver to get it back. Journalist Frank McNally wrote: “Nothing summed up the pathetic plight of the US team like Tiger Woods’s caddie sacrificing his master’s nine-iron on Sunday in a desperate but vain effort to appease the angry river gods.”
By Monday morning, Woods had already left Ireland for sponsor requirements in London and in typical Tiger fashion, won the following week in London by eight shots, if anyone doubted who was top dog. That era of dominance continued until a fateful night in November 2009 when Tiger crashed into a fire hydrant, stories of his marriage infidelity emerged, and led to him taking a significant break from the game and not winning a tournament for more than two years.
One appearance he did make in the year after the sex scandal was to honour a commitment to JP McManus and make his third appearance in his Pro-Am tournament in Limerick, now hosted in Adare Manor.
Woods’ only appearance in Ireland in 2010 would be in Limerick where he would look a shell of his former self, shooting 79 on the first day of the Pro-Am, following it up with a more respectable 69 on the second round.
It was a tough time in Tiger’s life for obvious reasons, and that was reflected by the terse press conference after the event where Woods’ responses were mainly one-word answers like this exchange with a reporter:
Reporter: “What will your build-up be to St Andrews?”
Reporter: “Why not play links golf beforehand?”
Woods: “I need to get home.”
Reporter: “Personal stuff?”
Woods: “See my kids”.
Yet the star power of Woods was still there to see as 40,000 fought to sneak a look at the golfer. The crowds were adoring and it was a special day for a monk from Glenstal Abbey, Fr Simon Sleeman, who got to drive Woods’ buggy, while former Irish amateur Arthur Pierse was his caddie for the day.
The American intends to head back to Limerick once more for the JP McManus Pro-Am in 2020, but now his focus is on Royal Portrush. As is standard for Woods, he will extensively map out his gameplan for the week in advance, playing practice rounds in the build-up to the event.
Strangely, Tiger had never played Portrush before this week, but his experiences in Ireland are likely to hold him in good stead ahead of his latest pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ Major record. And if he could manage to win another Open Championship, it would be his greatest Irish moment of them all.