AKRON, Ohio – As the calendar turns to August, Tiger Woods has already compiled an immensely successful year. He’s won four times, including a WGC event and The Players Championship, and currently leads the PGA Tour in scoring average, earnings, FedEx Cup points and the all-around ranking.
Despite the success to date, though, Woods’ season is also highlighted by its glaring omission – a major title. In preparation for next week’s PGA Championship, which will mark his 18th major start since he left Torrey Pines with the U.S. Open trophy in 2008, Woods took a trip Tuesday to scout Oak Hill Country Club. His comments in the wake of that visit quickly focused on a familiar topic.
“The greens are spotty,” he said Wednesday of Oak Hill’s putting surfaces upon arriving in Akron for this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “It’ll be interesting to see what they do for the tournament and how much they’re able to speed them up.”
It’s a frequent refrain for the world’s top-ranked player, who has been quick to cite green speeds as a key reason for his struggles at various events this year, including the British Open earlier this month. Wednesday, Woods again explained the impact that the hand-watering of greens at Muirfield throughout the weekend had on his ability to hole putts down the stretch.
“Normally, as the tournament progresses, the golf course is supposed to get faster and harder. We played it reversed,” he noted. “That was a bit of a situation I don’t think I can honestly ever remember facing, where the golf course was that fast on a Thursday and slowed down by Sunday with no Mother Nature involved.”
While it remains to be seen how well Woods can adjust to the changing greens, whether this week at Firestone Country Club or next week at the season’s final major, the topic clearly seems to be receiving the bulk of his attention. To be clear, Woods is not exactly battling the yips – you can’t win four times in seven starts without putting well, and he ranks second on Tour in total putting and fourth in strokes gained putting. But where once questions focused on his inability to find the fairway with a driver, or effectively control a wedge shot, now attention is placed on his ability to control the speed of his putts.
“I just didn’t get the feel of those greens the last few days, and I didn’t make the adjustments,” Woods recalled of his tie for sixth at Muirfield earlier this month. “That’s my fault for not making the adjustments. You’ve got to make the adjustments and I didn’t do it, and consequently I didn’t win the tournament.”
Even this week, on a course where he has had more success than any venue outside of Bay Hill, Woods spent little time in his pre-round comments Wednesday before mentioning the putting surfaces he was about to encounter on the South Course.
“I feel comfortable on this golf course, and I think that’s the key,” noted Woods, who has won at Firestone seven times, most recently in 2009. “I’ve played it when it’s been baked out and fast and is hard, and other times when it’s soft and slow. And the guys are saying it’s a little bit softer right now, but the greens are up to speed.”
It would be inaccurate to attach the term “struggling” to a player who has already won four times this season. Clearly, Woods has played (and putted) well for stretches this year, and he has attained the top spot in the world rankings for a reason. On some of the game’s biggest stages, though, it is equally evident that there has been an aspect missing on the greens that has kept him out of the winner’s circle.
If nothing else, Woods’ inability to master each facet of his game on cue should force fans and pundits alike to gain a better appreciation for his torrid stretch in the previous decade, when he accomplished the feat with unprecedented frequency, transforming the concept of peaking tee-to-green at major championship venues into an art form.
As for this week’s event, it’s likely a no-win situation for Woods. Should he play well or even win, all of the same questions will still follow him to Oak Hill next week; should he instead falter on a course where he has played so well in the past, those questions will only grow in both stature and volume.
A chicken-and-egg phenomenon, then, has emerged between Woods’ battle with green speeds and his (to date) unsuccessful quest for a 15th career major. Once he wins again, be it next week at Oak Hill, next year at Augusta or beyond, the doubts and speculation – both internal and external – about his putting adjustments will be quieted. Unless and until his hands are placed on the trophy at one of golf’s four biggest events, though, questions will linger on a topic upon which Woods himself clearly chooses to focus his attention.