LONDON (Reuters) - When Tiger Woods tees it up on Thursday in the British Open he would not be human if his thoughts did not wander back 15 years to when he tamed St Andrews and seemed set to become the greatest golfer in history.
The Woods of 2015 will probably be happy just to make the cut at the ‘Home of Golf’, or even just a few fairways as he wrestles to master another rebuilt swing in the wake of woeful rounds of 80 and 76 at last month’s U.S. Open.
In 2000, however, he played with such controlled precision that he caressed his ball around 72 holes of the Old Course in Scotland without once finding the myriad killer bunkers that repeatedly caught out his rivals.
The American had gone into the tournament with his confidence and reputation sky high after putting together a six-tournament winning streak, the longest since compatriot Ben Hogan in 1948.
One of them was the 2000 U.S. Open, where he broke or tied nine tournament records including his astonishing winning margin of 15 shots.
That triumph was his third different major and, at 24, he needed the British Open to become the youngest to complete a career grand slam.
He opened with a five-under-par 67 at St Andrews, trailing Ernie Els by a shot, but was three clear of compatriot David Toms on Friday night after adding a 66.
Relentlessly accurate on the Saturday he posted another 67 to head into the final day six ahead of Thomas Bjorn and David Duval.
Totally in the zone and in complete command of his clubs and the terrain, Woods could not have positioned his ball better had he walked the course and placed it each time by hand.
A risk-free 71 ensured he finished eight shots clear of Bjorn and Els as his 19-under tally was the lowest ever for a major.
Woods was clearly so far ahead of his rivals at the time that the obvious question was where he would be ranked in the sport’s pantheon, with fellow countryman Jack Nicklaus the gold standard.
He was two years younger than Nicklaus had been when he completed his career grand slam and the Golden Bear’s incredible total of 18 majors suddenly looked achievable.
“Any time you shoot four rounds under par in a major you’ve done well,” Bjorn said at the time. “But Tiger is just playing different golf.”
When Woods added the 2000 U.S. PGA Championship and then bagged the 2001 U.S. Masters to make him the first professional to hold all four majors at the same time, people began to talk in terms of “when” rather than “if” he would eclipse Nicklaus’ tally.
More major titles came, including a second Open at St Andrews in 2005, but the swaggering dominance of the Millennium year had begun to fall away.
Woods chalked up his 14th major victory at the 2008 U.S. Open but with his personal and professional life unraveling the following year, his best finish in the big four since has been a tied third at the 2012 British Open.
“Has he got another major in him?”, is one of the most-common debating topics in clubhouses around the world and Woods is not about to write himself off.
There were glimpses of the player of old at the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia last week when he fired a 67 for his first bogey-free round in two years.
“It’s the best I’ve hit it in a very long time. I had full control over all the clubs,” said Woods, now ranked an eye-popping 220th in the world.
“I made some nice strides heading into the Open. I’ll do some good work next week and be ready.”
Editing by Alan Baldwin