ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – During the first week of January, when Tiger Woods was in therapy and no one knew when he was coming back or how he would play, Jack Nicklaus looked at 2010 as a big year for Woods’ pursuit of major championships.
“If Tiger is going to pass my record, this is a big year for him in that regard,” Nicklaus said at the start of the season.
It was more much about “where” than who, when or how.
Augusta National for the Masters. Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open. St. Andrews for the British Open. Woods has won half of his 14 majors on those courses, just as Nicklaus finished his career having won half of his record 18 majors on the same three.
Woods tied for fourth in the first two majors.
The Old Course at St. Andrews, however, is where Woods really feels at home.
He played his first British Open on these ageless links as a 19-year-old amateur and made the cut. He first won the career Grand Slam at St. Andrews in 2000 with a record score to par (19-under 269) for an eight-shot victory. He returned in 2005 to win by five shots and reaffirm his dominance in the game.
Such is his affection for the Old Course that Woods was asked last month which would be the ideal rotation for him to play the four majors. Without hesitation, Woods replied, “I’d probably pick St. Andrews all four times.”
The only question is what kind of game he brings to the home of golf.
In the majors, Woods looks like he is getting close. Having not competed for five months, Woods had a chance to win on the back nine on Sunday at the Masters and tied for fourth. Then at the U.S. Open, playing in the second-to-last group on Sunday, he made five bogeys on the opening 10 holes and tied for fourth.
But in every other tournament, Woods has looked like any other player.
There was that missed cut at Quail Hollow with the highest 36-hole score of Woods’ career. There was the neck injury that caused him to withdraw from The Players Championship. In the two other U.S. PGA Tour events where he played all four rounds, Woods finished a combined 26 shots out of the lead.
“Just call it one of those things,” Woods said. “Tried just the same in every one. For some reason, those two (majors) have been my best results.”
What to expect from him at St. Andrews?
“Yeah, it’s probably hard for me to answer,” Phil Mickelson said. “I probably have as good a guess as you do.”
The No. 1 world ranking, which has belonged to Woods over the last five years, will be up for grabs at St. Andrews between Woods and Mickelson, as it was at the U.S. Open.
Mickelson has never fared well in golf’s oldest championship, his only top-10 coming in 2004 when he finished one shot out of a playoff at Royal Troon. He thinks he’s close to solving it, saying that he put too much spin on the ball in recent years. If he has learned the secret to the links, this might be an opportunity to win more than one major in a year for the first time.
Otherwise, sorting out the favorites for this British Open is not that easy.
Woods made it predictable the last two times he played because he was on top of his game, driving it well enough to take the bunkers out of play, and putting with the precision required on double greens that could leave putts as long as a football field.
“If Tiger plays the way he did in 2000 and 2005, yes, he is” the man to beat, said Colin Montgomerie, the runner-up to Woods in 2005. “It depends on how he is to cope with the situation he finds himself in. But at the same time, he’s played two majors now since he came back to play, and he’s finished fourth in both of them.
“So it would be a tough guy to bet against him on a course that is entirely suited to his strength, which is putting.”
Americans have won five of the last six times at St. Andrews, with John Daly somewhat of a surprise in 1995. They don’t see a golf course like this anywhere in the world. Then again, neither does anyone else.
“People who don’t like it, don’t understand it,” Scott Verplank said. “But if you understand it, then it’s brilliant.”
No one is ready to rule out Woods, who will try to become the first player to capture the British Open three times at St. Andrews. And while he failed to break par in any round at his last event in the AT&T National – the first time that has happened in 11 years – he said he made progress simply by getting another tournament under his belt, and driving the ball better than he had all year.
“I can’t wait to get over there,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting my lines, my feel, my numbers. I love playing the golf course, and we’ll see how the weather is. You never know.”
The forecast is for periods of rain throughout the week, meaning this could be a “green” British Open. There have been years, especially at St. Andrews, where it was so dry and brown that the fairways were running faster than the green.
The defending champion is Stewart Cink, one of the least celebrated Open champions in recent years not because of how he won, but because of whom he beat. Tom Watson, on the verge of becoming golf’s oldest major champion at age 59, missed an 8-foot par putt on the final hole at Turnberry and then never had a chance in the playoff against Cink.
Can he do it again? History is against him.
Watson is America’s greatest links champion, having won the claret jug five times, on five courses. Even so, the one Scottish links that Watson failed to win was St. Andrews. He came close in 1984, losing on the final holes to Seve Ballesteros.
The Spaniard, sadly, won’t be returning for one of the highlights of the week – the Champions Challenge, featuring past Open champions in a four-hole competition on Wednesday. Ballesteros, still recovering from a brain tumor, has been deemed not fit enough for travel, and perhaps for the emotional response he would surely have received.
After that, all eyes turn to Woods and his attempt to restore some normalcy to his game, and perhaps to make more history at St. Andrews. To some players, he is still the favorite.
“There’s no doubt,” Padraig Harrington said. “If Tiger hits form at all … he’s comfortably the favorite to win any of the majors, and St. Andrews sets up very well for him. He’s the No. 1 player at getting the ball to finish closest to where it lands out there, and St. Andrews requires that so much because of the firmness of the greens and how tight the pin positions will be. He’s well capable of winning without hitting his very best form.
“Is he about to hit that? I wouldn’t write him off, that’s for sure.”