Woods is worth the risk for Watson

OFF COURSE: Tiger Woods watches his drive at the 16th during yesterday's final round of The Open at Hoylake. Picture: AP

It was if Dickens himself had strolled down Meols Drive and meandered into Royal Liverpool Golf Club to witness the 143rd Open Championship.

The best of times, the worst of times, indeed.

This annual summer classic was one for the ages — a 25-year-old at the top of his game and a 38-year-old seemingly at the bottom of his.

Rory McIlroy, you are free to salute. Brilliant stuff, at least through three days and gut-checking material down the stretch, and he deserves every accolade that comes his way for how he handled Royal Liverpool and won a Major championship for the third time since.

But you are equally free to question Tiger Woods, whose Open was as miserable as McIlroy’s was sterling.

There are a number of ways to measure the depths to which this Open Championship will sit in Woods’ archive of disappointments, but several factors need to be digested:

- The former world No 1 finished at 294 and only once in 16 previous tries as a professional had Woods shot that high. The only thing is, his 294 in 1999 came at Carnoustie, which felt like a par 80 it was set up so absurdly, and Woods was joint eighth that summer. This 294 felt like 394, Royal Liverpool was so inviting in calm winds and on soft soil.

- He finished 69th, his worst standing in the 17 times he has finished 72 holes in this Major. Yes, even in his days as an amateur (1995, T68; 1996, T22), Woods placed higher than he did this year, his four-round score beating just three opponents.

- Whereas Woods in his last visit to Royal Hoylake, in 2006, played the par-5s in 14 under and finished at 18 under, this time he was six under for the par-5s and a head-shaking six over for the championship. That’s a 24-stroke difference.

- Since returning to action following a three-month layoff to recover from a microdiscectomy, Woods has played six competitive rounds and gone 13 over par, a stroke average of 73.83.

When you pile all this onto what he did earlier in the season, before the surgery — in three tournaments he withdrew, went T80, and T25 — Woods is just the shell of his former dominating self.

All of which begs the question: What next for Woods?

Still on a sort of rehabilitation from surgery, still miles outside the play-off picture in the FedEx Cup, still a guy who likely will need a captain’s pick to participate in the Ryder Cup come September... where exactly does he stand?

“I got more game time under my feet,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of things I need to work on, but I haven’t been able to work on a lot. Now, I’m just starting to come back.”

Fine, be that way. But the truth is there are serious questions swirling around Woods. He’ll have but two tournaments in coming weeks — the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship — and, barring some magic, he will likely miss the FedEx Cup play-offs.

The possibility exists that come August 10 Woods will be without anything on his competitive schedule, his season a series of misses, and the pressure will be all on American Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson.

Do you or don’t you pick Woods?

Watson, who at 64 showed the sort of passion for links golf this week that Woods couldn’t muster, spoke to reporters after a final-round 68. He asked how Woods was faring and was told that it wasn’t pretty.

“That’s not good,” Watson said, but he refused to engage in speculative talk.

“Everybody is thinking that I’m going to pick them automatically. I can assure you that I’m not going to pick him automatically.”

Woods is not entitled to that degree of carte blanche, but here’s what he has earned: Proper respect for his achievements and his commitment to the game. If he feels he can help his Ryder Cup team, if he considers himself healthy and willing, give him a plane ticket and a uniform.

It might be called a captain’s pick. But in this case, it deserves to be a player’s choice.

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