GULLANE, Scotland – Maybe it’s as simple as an untimely bounce. Maybe the only thing you need to know about Tiger Woods’ major drought is that the line between winning the big one and not is as fine as a sliver of Scottish fescue.
“It’s just a shot here and there. It’s making a key up-and-down here or getting a good bounce here, capitalizing on an opportunity here and there,” Woods explained on Tuesday at Muirfield.
From there the world No. 1 offered this year’s Masters to explain his Grand Slump, which has now reached five years and counting. Somewhere along the way in April at Augusta National – chances are good it was during his Saturday 73 – he didn’t get the kick from karma he needed to maintain his momentum.
“I really played well, and a good shot ended up having a bad break,” said Woods, who tied for fourth at the Masters. “It's a shot here and a shot there. It's not much. It could happen on the first day, it could happen on the last day.”
In fairness to Woods, it’s not as though he’s been a non-story since last winning a major in 2008. His 0-for-16 slide features just two missed cuts (2009 Open Championship and 2011 PGA) and six top-five finishes.
But it’s not Jack Nicklaus’ record of 19 runner-up finishes in majors that Woods had hanging on his wall in the family home in Southern California; it was that haul of 18 victories that has driven him from high chair to the game’s highest stage.
Woods was asked about the “slump” on Tuesday, as he always is when the world gathers for major moments, and if the extended drought is eating at him he is internalizing it well. He was not short, as he can be when asked an unsavory question, nor defensive. He was realistic.
Chances are good it was Muirfield where those uncontrollable variables of championship golf began to manifest themselves in Woods’ psyche.
Woods arrived at Muirfield for the 2002 Open looking to win the third leg of the single season Grand Slam, played his way into a tie for ninth place through two rounds and was within two strokes of the lead when Saturday’s epic storm blew him to a third-round 81 and out of contention.
“The worst I’ve ever played in,” Woods said of that stormy Saturday.
The theory that the week’s best is often decided by the best bounces, however, was put to the test in 2006 when Woods bunted his way (he hit just one driver all week) to a two-stroke victory at a particularly crusty Royal Liverpool.
That Muirfield, which has been groomed by a dry Scottish spring, will play to a similar shade of bouncy yellow this week was not lost on Woods as he begins his quest for his fourth Open victory and 15th major championship title.
“This golf course is playing similar to that. It's quick. And so far I've played a couple of days now, three days, and I've only hit a couple of drivers here,” he said. “Some of the holes, 4-iron was going 280, 3-iron is going a little over 300 yards. So it's quick. That's on this wind. Obviously it could change. Like what we had in ’02, it could come out of the northeast and it could be a totally different golf course.”
Or, it could remain brown and bouncy, which given his penchant for hitting fairway woods in recent years would at least partially explain Woods’ status as a 7-to-1 Open favorite.
He’d likely be an even more commanding bookmaker darling if not for the elbow injury he sustained this year at The Players that prompted him to skip the AT&T National. On Tuesday he said the elbow is fully mended, although he has limited his practice to truncated nine-hole rounds this week.
“It's one of the good things of taking the time off to let it heal and get the treatment and therapy on it,” Woods said. “The main reason was that coming over here the ground is going to be hard. And I'm going to need that elbow to be good.”
The rest, at least for Woods, is up to the bounces, of which there promises to be plenty along the Firth of Forth.
Armchair analysts have vilified everything from Woods’ putting to his driver to explain one of the game’s most mystifying droughts, but for Woods – who is not predisposed to second-guessing – the needle has been stuck on 14 since the ’08 U.S. Open as a result of the rub of the green. Maybe there is more to it than that, but Woods is either unable or unwilling to go any deeper.
On this it’s best to defer to Woods as the singular source, and it seems only apropos that on Thursday Woods sets out in need of a fortunate bounce at one of the game’s most hallowed trampolines.