ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – For Tiger Woods his quest for golf’s most elusive benchmark comes down to a familiar tenent – location, location, location.
If the 2010 major lineup was always going to be the Grand Slam equivalent of low-hanging fruit for the world No. 1 – with stops at Augusta National and Pebble Beach on the road to Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors – this week’s return to the storied links at St. Andrews was billed in pre-Nov. 27 terms as a formality if not a foregone conclusion.
And Woods knows it. Asked last month if he could pick one venue where he would like to play all four majors, Woods replied, “I'd probably pick St. Andrews all four times.”
Contain your surprise. In Woods’ two Open Championships at St. Andrews as a professional he has won by a combined 13 strokes, on his way to victory in 2000 he made just three bogeys over 72 championship holes and had just one three-putt, and nine one-putts on Thursday, in 2005. The Old Course is also the only major venue besides Medinah in Chicago (1999 and ’06 PGA Championship) and Augusta National where he has won multiple Grand Slam bottle caps.
“Of course he’s going to say that, if you asked me I’d pick Riviera,” said Robert Allenby, who has a victory (2001) and four top 10s in Los Angeles.
But then the “where” on Woods’ major championship wish list doesn’t necessarily explain the “why?”
Opinions vary and even Woods himself has a hard time quantifying his success on a golf course that rarely plays the same way on consecutive days, little lone consecutive championships.
Woods’ 2005 masterpiece was a statistical textbook, he tied for ninth in fairways hit (47 of 64), 53rd in greens in regulation and first in putting. Statistics from 2000 are not as complete, but all one needs to know about his first claret jug is that Woods was 5 under on the Old Course’s two par 5s (Nos. 5 and 14) and penciled in just three bogeys for the week.
The arm-chair reaction to Woods’ success at St. Andrews contends the layout’s sprawling fairways leave plenty of room for the occasional wayward drive, which Woods has been known to uncork from time to time.
Those critics, however, have never tried to hit their approach shot at the first hole from the wrong angle.
“Yeah, I thought it would be a little bit more narrow than it is. Getting on that first hole and seeing how wide it is, how wide every fairway is, but then again, once you start playing you realize it's not that wide,” Woods said.
“To get the angles you need to have into these flags, it narrows up very quickly. And then you add wind and where you need to put the golf ball to give yourself a chance of getting the ball close, it gets really narrow. You can hit every fairway there and still never have a shot at a flag. And I think that's a pretty neat feeling.”
There is no doubt the Old Course brings out Woods’ inner-Picasso, the methodical arrangement requiring a decision on almost every shot. It’s a learning curve that is uniquely suited to a player that loves the plan almost as much as the execution.
Even in 1995 when he played the Open Championship as an amateur Woods savored the profound simplicity of the place. Although he finished tied for 68th following a final-round 78, he carded middle rounds of 71-72, a stroke better over that stretch than eventual champion John Daly, and acquired an immediate respect for the layout’s intricacies.
“That was my first introduction to links golf was Carnoustie, the Scottish Open the week before, and St. Andrews (in ’95). It doesn't get any better than that as your introduction to links golf,” Woods said.
“I fell in love with it the first time I ever played it because I played it on a very interesting day. I played it when the tide changed right when I was at the turn, so I played all 18 holes into the wind. Absolutely fell in love with the golf course.”
Woods’ success on St. Andrews’ humps and bumps also speaks to his uncanny attention to detail. Equipment, swings and conditions all change, but the Old Course has “fit” Woods’ eye since that nascent introduction at the ’95 championship.
“The golf course sets up well for good ballstriking,” Allenby said. “When I played with him in ’05 I think our group was 22 under par. We played the first two days unbelievable and it was all about knowing the (sight) lines off the tee.”
Allenby also attributes Woods’ Old Course success to his unrivaled imagination. A golf course that never plays the same from one day to the next is uniquely suited for a player that thrives on options.
Of course, some of Woods’ Old Course mojo can be chalked up to good timing. In both 2000 and ’05 he was in the middle of historic major championship runs, with his ’00 victory being the second leg of the historic “Tiger Slam” and in ’05 he was at the turn in a four-of-eight Grand Slam tear.
And there’s also something to be said for being on the right side of Mother Nature. In 2002 at Muirfield Woods got caught in a gale on Saturday, shot a career-high 81 and finished tied for 28th, while last year at Turnberry the weather turned ugly just as Woods made the turn on Friday and he missed the cut. Conversely, the 2005 and ’00 Opens were played under comparatively mild conditions that mitigated the potential for a bad weather draw.
“You never know, though, Scotland could get some rain,” Woods smiled last month in an ode to the Open obvious. “We've all played under different conditions there, and it's still a great golf course. It's one of the reasons why I love it so much.”
Whether Woods’ love affair with the Old Course continues may depend on a fickle forecast, and an even more fickle iron game, but in the Grand Slam conversation, it doesn’t get any better than St. Andrews. At least not for Woods.