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Two months after his father, Earl Woods, lost his battle with cancer at the age of 74, Tiger Woods won the 2006 Open Championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England.
Tiger had tried too hard to win for his dying father at the Masters that April and finished 3 shots back of the winner, Phil Mickelson. Then he played poorly at Winged Foot to miss the cut in the U.S. Open.
Hoylake was for Earl.
After holding off Chris DiMarco with a final-round 67 for a 2-shot win, Tiger had a very emotional embrace with his caddie, Steve Williams.
"I'm kind of the one who bottles things up a little bit and moves on, tries to deal with things in my own way," said Tiger, who also won the previous year's Open at St. Andrews. "But at that moment it just came pouring out and of all the things that my father has meant to me and the game of golf, and I just wish he could have seen it one more time."
The Open Championship, which begins July 17, is back at Hoylake for the first time since 2006. When you have had Tiger's career -- 79 wins including 14 majors -- almost every tournament venue carries some special significance.
Yet Hoylake marked his last Open victory. Perhaps more anything that week was a celebration and a memorial in a profound sense to Tiger's relationship with Earl, a man who successfully guided his son from a child prodigy to a full blown mega superstar that transformed the sport of golf.
At Hoylake, Woods played near flawless golf. In 72 holes, he didn't find a single fairway bunker and only hit his driver once all week. Chasing his ball close to the ground on the burned-out Hoylake course with mostly long irons, Tiger said he only missed three irons shots in the tournament.
It was a performance that would have made Earl very proud.
"[Dad] was always on my case about thinking my way around the golf course and not letting emotions get the better of you, because it's so very easy to do in this sport.
"And just use your mind to plot your way around the golf course and if you had to deviate from the game plan, make sure it is the right decision to do that. [Dad] was very adamant I play like that my entire playing career."
This was Earl's legacy to his son: methodical, clearheaded and precise. We remember many of Tiger's greatest recovery shots, but less the tactician Earl started developing when his son was a mere toddler.
Tiger is still very much his father's son, in terms of his approach to the game. At times, Tiger has struggled with his ball striking and touch around the greens, most recently during his comeback at the Quicken Loans in late June. Even with those issues, it's difficult to question his prowess as a course manager.
As a professional, he has been under the tutelage of Butch Harmon, Hank Haney and Sean Foley, but his greatest teacher was Earl, who understood the foundations and progression of Tiger's golf swing better than anyone.
So what would Earl be on Tiger's case about now?
He would likely deliver the same message that Tiger has absorbed about plotting his way around the golf course. He would also implore Tiger to strive for equanimity on the golf course. Earl would not have Tiger obsess over swing mechanics. To him, good mechanics were important, but it was secondary to a strong mental outlook.
|An emotional Tiger Woods leaned on the shoulder of his caddie, Steve Williams, the last time the Open Championship was held at Hoylake in 2006. The victory was the first for Woods since his father, Earl, had died earlier that year.|
During the trophy presentation at Hoylake, Tiger said that his dad was out there keeping him calm and that he had felt calm for the entire week.
Surely, Earl lives in Tiger's heart, but gone from Tiger's inner circle from that week at Hoylake are his ex-wife, Elin, his caddie, Williams, and Haney. Tiger will arrive at Hoylake with a different swing instructor, woman, caddie and a remarkably different game.
Coming into Hoylake in 2006, Tiger had two victories on the season and three other top-10s, including a tie for third at the Masters. He was a year away from a ruptured ACL that began a string of devastating injuries that continued most recently with back surgery in March.
Now Woods lands in northwest England enduring the worst start to his professional career. He's coming off a missed cut at the Quicken Loans National in late June after not playing in a tournament since early March.
Perhaps it's not realistic to think that Tiger can compete at Hoylake. Haney recently told The Scotsman newspaper that if his former pupil thought he could realistically win the Open, he would have played in more tournaments leading up to the championship.
"That he isn't going to play competitively in the two weeks running up to the Open speaks to the fact that he doesn't care as much as he used to," Haney said. "Still, you can't win if you don't enter. Maybe he will catch lightning in a bottle. But I really think he is using the Open to get ready for the PGA at Valhalla next month. That's a much more realistic target for him."
"... He hasn't practiced much for almost a year now. He took time off at the end of last season, played a bit, then got hurt. So he is way behind in his preparation. It says a lot about him that he spent this past week with his kids. That will make him a better person, but it won't make him a better golfer.
|The most recent time Tiger Woods held the Claret Jug right after winning the Open Championship came in 2006 at Royal Liverpool. The same venue hosts this year's third major, starting Thursday in northwest England.|
"What is weird to me is that some people think he is the only guy in the world who doesn't have to practice. He does. He has good reasons not to practice -- being with his kids is a good reason. And so is injury. And rehab. They are all valid. But it still adds up to not practicing."
Whether Valhalla is a more realistic goal for Tiger is debatable. What matters now is how he plans to manage his game -- rust and all -- at a place where Haney contends he had the single best ball-striking tournament of his career.
Hoylake should also be a joyous reminder for Tiger of the wonderful feeling he had knowing that his father was somewhere watching, hopefully pain free and at peace about the lessons in golf and life that he left for his son to share with the world. Through good and bad times, it's likely Earl's voice that Tiger hears most clearly.
Tiger, who will turn 39 in December, will do well to try to summon Earl's calming presence at Hoylake, as he tries to recharge his powers in the Open Championship and down the road at other majors.