WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – When walking around The Greenbrier, the imprint left by Sam Snead is unmistakable.
Heck, it starts even before arriving on property. The road leading to the resort’s white-brick perimeter? Sam Snead Boulevard.
Once inside the gates, resort guests are greeted by pictures of Snead after shooting a 59 on the Old White TPC in 1959. They can dine in “Sam Snead’s” restaurant near the course, or opt for lighter fare at “Slammin’ Sammy’s” sports bar.
Within these West Virginia mountains, Snead’s shadow still looms large. Which brings us to this week’s star attraction at The Greenbrier Classic, Tiger Woods.
Woods is teeing it up here for the second time in this event’s brief history. He returns to The Greenbrier at No. 220 in the world rankings, still searching for a spark to carry with him across the ocean to the Open Championship later this month.
There, of course, he will strive for major No. 15, a title that has eluded him for more than seven years. But after a career spent chasing Nicklaus’ mark of 18 majors, is Woods better-served to focus on Snead’s record of 82 career PGA Tour victories?
Such a notion seemed like an afterthought two years ago, with Woods in the midst of a five-win season that earned him Player of the Year honors. He captured the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational for win No. 79, and at that point it seemed like he would steamroll through Slammin’ Sammy’s record without much resistance.
But 23 months have passed, and Woods’ win total is stuck on 79. He has more rounds in the 80s this season (three) than in the 60s (two), and after missing the cut at the U.S. Open, Woods’ best shot at finding the winner’s circle this week might be to ask Jim Justice for a guided tour.
Woods’ pre-tournament interview was filled with his typical affirmations and buzz words, but he also pointed out that Snead’s mark remains on his radar.
“I would love to break his record,” Woods said. “I mean, that’s one of the hallowed records in our sport. To be in a position to be able to do that is something I’m proud of so far. Hopefully I can get that done in the near future.”
With Woods assured of only a handful of starts through the rest of the season, it appears that “near future” will almost certainly extend into 2016 and beyond Woods’ 40th birthday. While Snead remained a prolific winner well into his 50s, winning 17 times after the age of 40, his longevity was more the exception than the rule.
Guys like Vijay Singh (22 wins), Kenny Perry (11) and Steve Stricker (nine) have all flourished after age 40, but after that the list very quickly cuts to names like Gene Littler and Dutch Harrison, each with seven.
Winning on the highest level is never easy, and it certainly gets more difficult as the years begin to pile up. It could get tougher still for Woods, an aging champion whose powerful swing has already left his body with more than its fair share of scars.
Snead was the first pro emeritus at The Greenbrier, serving from 1993 until his death in 2002, and that position now belongs to six-time major winner Lee Trevino. Trevino’s uncertainty over whether Woods can surpass Snead’s win total speaks to the merit of the debate, especially given the current state of Woods’ game.
“It’s not going to be an easy task for him,” Trevino said. “I can’t say one way or the other. I will say this, that if he doesn’t do something quickly, it’ll get worse on him, and certainly I don’t think he’ll reach Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.”
While Woods continues to speak of release patterns and baseline shifts, Trevino joined the chorus of voices proclaiming that the source of Woods’ struggle lies between his ears.
“I don’t think it’s a physical thing with his golf. I mean, he’s Tiger Woods. He’s won all these golf tournaments,” Trevino said. “I think right now it’s kind of mental. He has lost some confidence, and that’s the hardest thing in the world to get back, is confidence. Because once you start to lose it, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on you because you haven’t won in so long, and you want to so bad.”
With ample fairways and manageable rough, the Old White TPC seems like the kind of course where Woods might be able to find solid footing before departing for St. Andrews. His return to form, according to Trevino, will be a quick one once victory No. 80 is in the books.
“As soon as he gets his next win, when he does, his confidence will come back and he’ll be a dangerous man again,” Trevino said. “No question in my mind.”
With a strong performance this week on a course synonymous with Snead, Woods can take a step toward a return to “dangerous.” But Slammin’ Sammy’s shadow will linger well after Woods leaves The Greenbrier, until that moment when – if? – he hoists his 83rd trophy.