LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Hand it to Tiger Woods, he’s stuck with his game plan come hell or (pun intended) high water.
Woods hasn’t necessarily been forthright with his M.O. but best guess is he arrived at wet Royal Lytham & St. Annes this week with several strategies, none of which were drawn up for such benign conditions. Through 36 holes of this Open Championship Woods has shown flashes of his 2006 victory at Royal Liverpool, where he hit irons off the tee all week and shot 18 under par and won by two shots.
But let’s not call this Hoylake 2.0 just yet. The strategy is “brilliant” as they say in these parts, but only if Woods wins claret jug No. 4 and major championship No. 15. Anything other than that, and he likely will be criticized – rightly or wrongly – for being much too conservative.
Woods birdied two of the last three holes Friday to shoot a second consecutive 67 and is alone in third place at 6 under par. Brandt Snedeker is the leader at 10 under. Adam Scott is second at 9 under.
“My mantra all week has been to get the ball on the greens as fast as possible,” Snedeker said. “Once I'm on there I have a pretty good hand for the speed of the greens. I'm making every 25-footer I look at, so that makes it a lot easier. Just going to try and keep doing that over the weekend.”
There hasn’t been a lick of wind here in northern England for two days, only a few sprinkles during play and a heavy overnight storm Thursday that made these links soggy for the second round. Mostly, the conditions have been calm, making Lytham more vulnerable than could have been imagined.
Still, a stubborn Woods has hit driver precisely three times in two days – twice on Thursday, once on Friday. He’s content with hitting his “spots” and staying away from danger, a noble option. Woods confided Friday that he’d love to hit driver on both par 5s but the shot doesn’t suit his eye.
While Woods is playing a version of hit-and-giggle, Snedeker and Scott have been more aggressive and haven’t been afraid to go flag hunting. Granted an iron off the tee rolls miles here but Woods has often left himself more than 200 yards into greens, making it difficult to hit the ball within birdie range.
Meanwhile, Snedeker has hit many drivers off the tee and has made 10 birdies and zero bogeys. He also hasn’t found one bunker. He’s hit a couple wayward drives but each time has been able to put a good strike on the approach. Scott has done much the same and played impressively Friday despite his lead being wiped out before he ever hit a golf ball.
“There’s only a couple of holes where I could have hit driver,” Woods proclaimed. “I had a game plan that I thought would fit well on this golf course, and I figured I could execute it. And I've done that so far.”
It is hard to hammer the man. He has, after all, won 14 majors including three jugs on this side of the pond. And he’s done it with different methods. Through two rounds, Woods has hit 26-of-28 fairways and 29-of-36 greens and has taken 58 putts. He’s found only one bunker and that ended in birdie when he holed out from the side of the 18th green Friday, sending the British gallery into a roar.
It’s stating the obvious but we have no clue where Woods would be if he took more chances hitting driver from the teebox. More than perhaps any other time in his career, Woods is driving the ball on a rope so it’d be fun to see him test those skills here.
Part of the noise too is a competitive deal. We’re so used to watching Woods overpower a course during his heyday that it’s difficult to watch playing partners Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose consistently bomb it 50 yards past him even if they did both miss the cut by a shot.
On the par-4 15th hole, Woods hit iron off the tee and was left with 222 yards into the green, too long a distance to expect anything better than par. Iron worked off the tee at 16, where Woods drained a 20-footer for birdie and it worked off the last only because he holed out a vintage Woods bunker shot.
Woods made it clear that the leaders are not going to change his strategy, no matter how well they play or what the conditions are like over the next 48 hours.
“I'm hitting the ball in the fairway, and that's the thing around this golf course, you just have to do that,” Woods said. “You can't control it out of the rough here.
“So yeah, you can hit drivers down there, and some guys did. Or you can be more conservative.”
Come hell or high water.