Although few have seemingly noticed, Tiger Woods’ win at the AT&T National this past weekend gave him his third win of the season (the most on the PGA Tour) in his last seven events – a ridiculous 42.8% winning percentage as of late. In other words, Tiger’s game is starting to come around. Isn’t it funny how Tiger’s game is described as “coming around” when he’s won more than any of his peers? Regardless, everyone now knows that Tiger must win his first major since 2008 to officially be “back.” And with the Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St. Annes July 15-22, I think there’s an overwhelming case to make Tiger the favorite.
1) History – As far as I can tell Tiger Woods popped out of the womb with a flawless overlapping grip. He let out brief cry, but instead of uttering “cookie” or “mama” be blurted out “I want 19 majors.” Tiger’s been a student of golf history for as long as he’s been a student of the game. He’s made so much history of his own that I won’t even begin to touch on his historic performances. But there’s no doubt Tiger shines at historic venues. He’s won more majors at Augusta than anywhere else, and two of his three Open Championships have come on the fabled links of St. Andrews. While all of the Open Championship venues are rich in history, Royal Lytham’s past is dripping with memorable moments and distinguished champions.
Most recently, David Duval defined his career by winning his one and only major at Royal Lytham in 2001. Tom Lehman, the ultimate grinder, captured the title at the 1996 Open. Seve Ballesteros won here twice, in 1988 and 1979. And perhaps most famously Bobby Jones himself out-dueled Walter Hagen in the 1926 Open Championship.
2) Royal Lytham’s bunkers – I’ve played St. Andrew’s, where Tiger Woods famously avoided all 112 bunkers en route to capturing the Open in 2000. Trust me, it looks as though there are bunkers everywhere. As for Royal Lytham, well, there are 206 bunkers on the course – an average of more than 11 per hole. Tiger’s performance in 2000 was just one example of his unmatched ability to carefully plot his way around a course. He’ll have a game plan, and he’ll stick to it. There will be a strong correlation at this event, much more so than a normal event, between avoiding bunkers and finishing high on the leaderboard. This should be right up Tiger’s alley.
3) Leave the driver in the bag – Bernard Darwin famously wrote of Royal Lytham, “Hit your ball to the right place and the way to the hole is open to you, but hit your ball to the wrong place and every kind of punishment, whether immediate or ultimate, will ensue.” To me, this is a recipe for keeping the driver in the bag. In Hank Haney’s book The Big Miss he notes that he was never comfortable watching Tiger with a driver in his hand in competition. If he hit a good one, he’d feel relieved. According to Haney, Tiger has never considered himself a good driver of the golf ball. He lives somewhat in fear of “the big miss.”
Whether that’s true or not (I tend to believe it’s at least somewhat true), I’ll never forget Tiger’s win in 2006 at Royal Liverpool. I’m pretty sure Tiger didn’t hit a single driver in the final round, opting for a steady dose of stingers, 4-irons, and an occasional 3-wood off the tee. For the week, he found the fairway and astounding 86% of the time, methodically plotting his way around the course while others bombed drivers and then dealt with the consequences. Tiger’s one of few players patient enough to do this, and his ability with his long and mid-irons may be his greatest non-mental advantage over his competition. I’d look for more of the same at Royal Lytham – it may be boring to watch, but it will work.
4) The greens – There’s no way around it – the greens at the British Open, regardless of venue, are slow by tour standards. Tiger’s struggles with the putter often come when he gets overly aggressive on birdie putts of over 20 feet, leading to three putts. In fact, Steve Williams famously kept a stat that when Tiger avoids three putting for all 72 holes, he wins 85% of the tournaments he plays in. The slow greens will limit Tiger’s 3-putts, and the severe undulations with appeal to Tiger’s creative side, which often brings the best out of his putter.
Perhaps more importantly, the slower greens mean that if Tiger has a putt to win it’ll likely be a putt he can actually hit with some force – a nice advantage when nerves are running high. Make no mistake about it, Tiger is the best pressure putter possibly ever. But he knows he needs this win, and the nerves will be running higher than normal.
5) Homecoming - When Bobby Jones defeated Walter Hagen in 1926, he would famously receive a ticker tape parade through the streets on New York upon returning to the US. While there will be no such parade for Woods even if he wins, returning to the US with the Claret Jug in hand would be seen in a similar light in golf history. It’d serve as Tiger’s rebirth, the sports media would go gaga, and Tiger as we’ve come to know him will be considered “fixed.” If he does win, I can almost guarantee a PR tour of sorts with stops on Letterman, Sunday Conversation, etc.
While I don’t think Tiger feels like he needs to redeem himself whatsoever, nobody wants the major monkey off his back more than Woods. He knows what this win would mean in terms of silencing his critics, but more importantly he knows what it would mean to his charge on Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. He wants the homecoming, and after all he’s been though in the last 4 years, he wants a win terribly. Tiger’s commitment to the game seems to finally be renewed in full, and his hunger is there arguably stronger than ever before.
Winning at Royal Lytham will require a game plan. The driver will stay in the bag, and the winner will plot along methodically avoiding bunkers. Darwin called Lytham, “A beast of a course, but a just beast.” That sounds to me like the type of course that the best player in the world will win on, and with history as a backdrop, Tiger Woods seems custom-made to return to the US much as Bobby Jones did in 1926. Advantage, Woods.