LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – There’s a reason Arnold Palmer is known as The King. It isn’t because of his seven major championship victories. It’s because of how he won them.
The classic images of golf’s consummate riverboat gambler are those depicting him hitching up his britches and taking a mighty lash at the ball. His aggressive nature spawned Arnie’s Army; it bought him legions of admirers around the globe.
A man of such royalty – even if it is just a nickname – deserves the dignity that comes with his role. He deserves to maintain that regal appearance without having to scramble for answers.
And yet, there was Palmer, a look of complete bemusement stretched across his face. This was three years ago, just days after Tiger Woods had shocked the world. This time, though, it wasn’t because of another dominant victory or clutch putt that led to an awe-inspiring celebration.
Instead, the greatest closer in the game’s history shocked us by losing. For the first time in 15 tries, Woods let a 54-hole major championship lead slip through his hands, as he watched Y.E. Yang climb past him for the PGA Championship title. He was roundly criticized for taking a conservative approach after jumping out to an early lead, a valid criticism considering his apparent strategy.
So when Palmer – the inimitable swashbuckler – was queried about Woods’ cautious game plan, he could hardly contain his puzzlement.
The King wrinkled his nose and furrowed his brow, then finally explained, “I don't like that. I think he's too good to be conservative. If you have the ability like he does, why be conservative? And obviously it didn't work out.”
It is a story that should perhaps be relayed to Woods prior to the final round of the Open Championship, which he will start in fourth place, five strokes behind leader Adam Scott. To this point, his game plan has echoed that of the aforementioned weekend at Hazeltine, a thoroughly conservative concept to keep himself from the depths of despair on a difficult Royal Lytham & St. Annes layout.
It’s tough to find fault with the strategy. An overly aggressive approach could have left Woods suffering the same fate as each of the year’s first two majors, when he essentially shot himself out of contention over the final 36 holes.
And yet, for a player ranked fifth in the PGA Tour’s total driving category, it remains a bit puzzling that he hasn’t at least pressed the gas pedal a bit off the tee. Through 54 holes, Woods has employed driver just four times, including once in each of his last two rounds.
It should serve as cruel irony that his third-round playing partner, Thorbjorn Olesen, doesn’t own a driver’s license – and yet, it was Tiger who wasn’t doing any driving.
The iron-off-the-tee strategy recalls the familiar tune “Iron Man” from the band Black Sabbath:
Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
Can he walk at all,
Or if he moves will he fall?
It might be time for Tiger to make a move – even if it means he falls.
After back-to-back scores of 3-under 67, he posted an even-par 70 that he called “about right” for how he played. Using driver only on the par-5 seventh hole – leading to birdie – on multiple occasions he left himself with more than 200 yards for his second shot into a par-4, which sounds conservative even by conservative standards.
Woods has already attempted to use a cautious game plan when leading a major championship, only to find it back fire in that battle against Yang. This time, he trails not only a world-class player in Scott, but remains one stroke behind plucky Brandt Snedeker and fellow major champion Graeme McDowell, his Sunday playing partner.
Nobody wants him
He just stares at the world
Planning his vengeance
That he will soon unfold
Woods makes no secret about what matters most to him in the game. In his pervasive pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship titles, he often conveys the message that his game should peak four times per year.
It’s roundly assumed that a more aggressive approach – the Arnold Palmer approach, if you will – will either yield victory or a crash-and-burn scenario. If so, it may be the smartest style on Sunday. After all, Woods isn’t a guy who’s playing for fourth place.
Then again, the wind is supposed to howl around Royal Lytham for the first time all week, with expected gusts of up to 30 mph. Woods intimated after the third round that the course conditions – not his score nor place on the leaderboard – will determine his strategy.
“I've just got to execute my game plan,” he said. “I know the forecast is one thing, but let's see what actually happens. But whether the wind blows or not, I've still got to go out there and post the round that I know I need to post and execute my plan.”
Woods has won tournaments playing both aggressively and conservatively, and lost them using each method, too. There’s no doubt which one the man nicknamed The King would advise for the final round, but that doesn’t mean he can’t stick to the same game plan of the first three days – and it could mean victory once again for Iron Man.
Heavy boots of lead
Fills his victims full of dread
Running as fast as they can
Iron Man lives again!