Tiger Woods' winless drought in major championships has officially passed the decade mark, something unfathomable even five years ago when Woods resumed the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking during his most recent PGA Tour Player of the Year campaign. Now 42 and having spent much of the time between that epic playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open battling injuries, there's a distinct possibility Woods will finish his career with the 14 major titles he claimed by 32. But based on the golf he's displayed during his latest comeback, Tiger certainly has the potential to win another major (That's an actual major and not some big-money, made-for-TV match against Phil Mickelson). And his best chances to accomplish this will come at the Open Championship. Here are seven reasons why.
1. Tiger’s love of links golf: Every year golfers at the Open Championship wax poetic about their love of links golf. For many, it’s simply lip service, but not for Tiger, who genuinely enjoys the different challenges presented at golf's oldest major. Read these comments transcribed from *Chronicles of a Champion Golfer":
With all that extra strategy, tournament links golf on historic courses is golf nerd heaven. And with all due respect to Bryson DeChambeau, there's no bigger golf nerd than Tiger Woods. It's no wonder he's hoisted the claret jug three times by the time he was 30.
2. The weather conditions: "Let Mother Nature dictate it and then you have to try and figure it out," Woods says in that above passage. Part of liking links golf is embracing — truly embracing and not just lying to yourself that you're having fun in freezing, sideways rain — the ever-changing weather conditions that are thrown at you and Woods seems to do that as much as anyone.
OK, so he's certainly not impervious to bad weather as that photo from Muirfield in 2002 shows. But Woods is particularly adept at and fond of playing in the wind. Two words: "Stinger" and "Traj." OK, well one word and one abbrev. Speaking of hitting irons off the tee. . .
3. The course conditions: Whereas Woods could overpower PGA Tour venues — and even St. Andrews — in his prime with driver (even a wild driver), that's not usually the case at the Open where bomb-and-gouge style isn't recommended. The extra bounce and roll from the firm and fast seaside turf takes driver out of play on a number of holes, and allows tour pros to take it out completely if they so choose. That's exactly what Woods did during his memorable win at Hoylake in 2006, the last of his three Open triumphs. Tiger hit the big dog just once the entire week, relying on impeccable iron play, including a holed 4-iron from 200 yards during the second round.
The guy was so confident in his iron game he was routinely and purposely leaving himself 200 yards in on normal-length par 4s! And considering he ranks third on the PGA Tour in strokes gained/approach this season, he's not too far off from that form. Plus, as fun as Tiger's famed "stinger" off the tee is to watch, it's also quite effective. And in no tournament does it come in more handy for all the reasons we've already mentioned (firm conditions, wind, strategy!) than at the Open.
4. The greens: Tiger Woods’ putting this season has been, well, to be kind, NOT vintage. But greens at the Open have long helped golfers mask their putting problems. The slower, flatter surfaces free players up to be more aggressive because they don't have to worry about as many stressful comebackers — stressful comebackers that worse putters are more likely to miss. This is the reason the Open was long thought to be where Sergio Garcia would win his maiden major. And while he may have finally (surprisingly) achieved that at Augusta National, which arguably has pro golf's slickest putting surfaces, the Open's slow greens are a big reason why he has 10 top 10s — one more than even Tiger — in the event.
Woods' recent benching of the Scotty Cameron putter that won him 13 of his 14 majors reeks of desperation, but a switch to a TaylorMade mallet worked out well at the Quicken Loans National (above), and the mallet style is generally considered to give golfers an edge with the longer lag putts so often faced at the Open. Many will argue the Masters is Woods' best chance at winning another major, but that claim is based more on Tiger's wealth of local knowledge at Augusta through all those reps (Another one of his fave abbrevs) and the course's lack of rough. When it comes to claiming another green jacket, those greens Gary McCord once joked were "bikini-waxed" aren't doing Woods any favors.
5. Older golfers fare well: The combination of all the factors we've talked about so far has made the claret jug the major trophy most attainable by aging tour pros. As our Joel Beall noted in a great piece last year, over the past quarter century, a golfer 38 or older is three times as likely to win the Open as he is any other major. A golfer 40 or older is four times as likely. And the five oldest winners in the past 28 majors — Henrik Stenson (40), Mickelson (43), Darren Clarke (43), Ernie Els (42) and Zach Johnson (39) -- all were victorious at the Open. That doesn't include a 53-year-old Greg Norman leading through three rounds in 2008 or a 59-year-old Tom Watson nearly claiming a sixth Open the following year. FIFTY-NINE! Just look at how old he was!
In other words, a win by a 42-year-old Woods (or an even slightly older version) wouldn't be an outlier, but rather follow that trend.
6. Tiger is not your typical older golfer: The most surprising aspect of Woods' latest comeback — this time, from a fourth back surgery — has been his pop. Tiger has more than hung with the young whippersnappers off the tee, registering some of the fastest swing (he's still averaging more than 120 miles per hour) and ball speeds on the PGA Tour this season. He's a physical specimen who is still in peak club twirling form!
So while Woods will be helped by his vast experience at this and future Opens, another victory in the event won't be all on guile and guts. To reiterate, despite having two vertebrae in his back FUSED TOGETHER, he's still able to move it with the best of them from all scenarios, including that wispy Scottish fescue. The man is a marvel of modern medicine. And if he remains healthy (Yes, a pretty big "if"), Tiger should have plenty more cracks at the claret jug. Again, if Old Tom Watson came that close to winning despite having your grandfather's swing speed, Old Tiger Woods is capable of finishing the job.
7. Tiger's close calls: Woods hasn't won a major championship in more than 10 years, but that doesn't mean he hasn't had chances. And arguably his two best came at back-to-back Opens in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, Woods began the final round at Royal Lytham five shots behind 54-hole leader Adam Scott and one shot behind eventual winner Ernie Els. He wound up finishing four shots behind Els, but three of those were given away when he ended up in this unfortunate spot on the sixth hole:
And as the World No. 1 at Muirfield in 2013, Tiger teed off in the penultimate group on Sunday just two shots behind 54-hole leader Lee Westwood and three shots ahead of eventual winner Phil Mickelson. He never got it going though, three-putting the first hole for bogey, shooting 74 and falling to T-6. Tiger only played one more major as the top-ranked player and he hasn't had a top 10 in one of golf's four biggest events since.
So what does it all mean for Tiger's prospects this year? Woods has a solid track record at Carnoustie (T-7 in 1999 and T-12 in 2007) and he's arriving in Scotland off a T-4 at the Quicken Loans National, his third top 5 in 11 starts in 2018. And based on the lack of rain the UK has received of late, Tiger is licking his chops at facing a course where players will be forced to factor in the ground game. NBC/Golf Channel's David Feherty said Wednesday of Gullane, the site of this week's Scottish Open, "the golf course is as burnt a links course as I've seen for a long time, maybe since '89, The Open at Royal Troon." Sounds fun!
So you can bet Carnoustie will play, firm, fast, and as always, difficult. And you can bet on Tiger at 20-to-1 odds. Considering all we just discussed, that's not a bad value. . .