Winning will never be as easy as Tiger Woods once made it look, especially at major championships.
Five years is a long time since his last victory anywhere, and it has been just as long since he was a true factor in a major championship.
Those facts, plus his age of 42 and history of injury, provide plenty of fodder for those who believe Woods’ winning ways are in the past.
And yet there are those four top-12 finishes in nine starts this year, including a tie for second where he missed a playoff by a shot at the Valspar Championship in March. A surprising showing of length off the tee. Beautiful iron shots. A short game that has been far better than expected.
All of that leads many to believe that victory is just a matter of time.
“I believe he is going to win a tournament again, and I think he’ll win a major again,” said Hank Haney, one of Woods’ former coaches who worked with the golfer from 2004 to 2010, a period that included six major championships and 31 PGA Tour victories.
But Haney also feels that the U.S. Open will be the hardest of the four major championships for Woods to win, not just this year but over time. The penal setup, Woods’ struggles off the tee, the inability to make much happen from the fairway rough … all of it leads to doubt, especially this week at Shinnecock Hills, site of the 118th U.S. Open.
“There’s no doubt about it, the U.S. Open is tough for him,” Haney said. “You only have two par-5s, so it’s harder to make birdies. When that’s the case, it’s more about how many bogeys and double bogeys you make. You don’t win the U.S. Open because you make a ton of birdies. You can’t make double bogeys and you limit your bogeys.
“After a double bogey, you can’t just say, “I’ll make two birdies to make up for it.’ How many birdies are you going to make at a U.S. Open? At Augusta [for the Masters], if you 3-putt, you can eagle No. 8. You can eagle No. 13. You have chances to make up for a hiccup. He hits it one time in that hay and has to come out sideways and then misses a green or 3-putts and you have a double bogey. So his odds have dropped dramatically.”
“I believe he is going to win a tournament again, and I think he’ll win a major again. … There’s no doubt about it, the U.S. Open is tough for him.”
Hank Haney, Woods’ former swing coach
Woods’ last major victory, at the 2008 U.S. Open, was remarkable because he played with a torn ACL and two stress fractures in his tibia. And he overcame what Haney and others believe is almost statistically impossible — four double bogeys, including at least one in each round.
Throw in 10 bogeys for the week and Woods played 14 of the 72 holes in 18 over par. But he managed to make three eagles and 13 birdies, playing 16 holes in 19 under to get into a playoff he won over Rocco Mediate.
At his best, however, it didn’t matter the venue or the major. Woods was good in them all, posting those 14 titles in a 12-year span. He once held all four at the same time. And he had a similar number of top-five finishes in all the majors, posting a total of 30, with 10 coming at the Masters, seven at the U.S. Open, six at The Open and seven at the PGA Championship.
But this week Woods faces a Shinnecock Hills test that he admits is a brute. The course has been lengthened by some 500 yards since it was last played here in 2004, to more than 7,400 yards.
Can he hit it in play off the tee enough to be a factor?
Woods ranks 120th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee, giving up nearly half a shot to the field. He is barely hitting 50 percent of his fairways. Woods makes up for his poor driving by being so good at getting the ballt o the green — he is fifth in strokes gained tee to green, and fourth in strokes gained approach to the green.
But the difficulty of that becomes pronounced with narrower fairways and deep rough, expected traits at Shinnecock.
David Duval, a No. 1 player in the world for a time, sees it differently.
“At this point, with what we’ve seen with his most recent reincarnation and comeback, I would actually go the opposite way because typically if you think of a U.S. Open or an Open — think back to when he won with not hitting driver at an Open [2006, Royal Liverpool], he has not driven the ball particularly well,” said Duval, an analyst with Golf Channel. “He’s certainly got a lot of speed and distance, but accuracy has not been there.
“His iron play has been up and down a little bit, but I think that’s where the strength has been. And so potentially taking the driver out of his hands might actually give him a better opportunity.”
It is true that at venues such as PGA National for the Honda Classic (12th) and Innisbrook for the Valspar Championship (T-2), Woods had to play more strategically off the tee, hitting more 3-woods and 2-irons.
But those clubs are not automatic for him, either. For example, Woods found the water off the 18th tee during the first round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass hitting a 2-iron. The same club on the opening day at the Memorial Tournament was pulled well left of a hazard and led to a bogey at the par-5 11th.
“He hasn’t been flawless with that club,” Haney said. “Of course, you can say the same thing about a lot of players, but when you hit it 300-and-some yards, your misses are going to be off. And he’s had too many penalty shots. That is what he needs to avoid.”
At the Memorial, where Woods said he hit the ball better than he had in years, he still had two tee shots he hit out of bounds and had another hole where he found a hazard on an approach after a poor drive. He gave up a total of 5 strokes to par on those holes.
Then there is Shinnecock’s length. Five of the par-4s measure 485 yards or more, with two of them more than 500 yards. The par-5 16th measures 619 yards. So there is a good chance Woods will be hitting a driver on more than half of the 14 driving holes.
During his two-day scouting mission prior to the Memorial, Woods was forced to hit numerous drivers off tees, given the length of the holes. Part of that may have been due to wet, cool conditions. Then again, there’s no guarantee that won’t be the case during the U.S. Open.
“It will be long, very long,” Woods said. “But around the greens it’s very different. They have taken out more than 500 trees since the last time I played it and added about 500 yards, so it’s a very different golf course. Very open, wind blows a little more. I understand they’re trying to give us an opportunity to run the ball up, have more fall-offs, a lot of pitch and runs and all different shots around the greens. If it’s soft, it’s a moot point. If it’s hard, then it becomes quite a test.”
Woods would not concede that this is the toughest test for him now, acknowledging that they are all difficult. But you would think next year at Pebble Beach, in 2020 at Winged Foot and certainly in 2021 at Torrey Pines, Woods would feel more comfortable, assuming his health and game are at the present level.
And that still offers the perspective that often goes missing. A year ago at this time, Woods was still four months away from being able to swing a club after spinal fusion surgery. He will be playing in just his 10th PGA Tour event this year and just his 14th worldwide tournament dating to 2015.
“I’ve seen a lot of really good things,” said Pat Perez, who has known Woods since their junior golf days competing against each other. “His speed is unbelievable. Having had injuries, you have to have a great doctor, and you have to get it right, and it has to heal. You need those things to happen or you have no chance.
“I think they missed [with his] back a couple of times. That’s my personal opinion. Now they got it, and he feels like Superman again. He can swing as hard as he wants, hit the shots he wants. He just has to play. It’s going to take him a while. He’s been in and out of the game for five years now. Not that he played all the time, but he was playing even if he was at home. It’s not starting over, but getting back into the majors and playing them. He’s got the speed, all the shots.”
But can he put it all together this week?