SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Tiger Woods laughed when he was told that he doesn’t have the biggest yacht in the marina this week. (His baby, the 155-foot Privacy, which he twice called a “dinghy” Tuesday morning, is moored in nearby Sag Harbor during the U.S. Open.)
You may take the reference to his yacht size literally, figuratively, metaphorically or symbolically. After a full decade without Woods having won a major championship, it’s another way of saying that he no longer is golf’s biggest swinging stick.
The same goes for Phil Mickelson. His last major title came five years ago. He has won only once since. Mickelson turns 48 on Saturday.
The big question isn’t whether these two giants, the faces of golf for nearly two decades, are still relevant. Of course they are. The public votes with its eyeballs on TV and clicks on the Internet, and these guys still rule by a wide margin over Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day or whoever is third.
The big question is, can these only-one-name-needed stars, Tiger or Phil, still win a major?
Common sense says no.
Woods, despite regaining his clubhead speed after back fusion and hitting it miles again, mostly has putted suspiciously like the 42-year-old that he is. In the grind-’em-up world of the PGA Tour, few great putting strokes survive even until age 40. As for Mickelson, no man older than 45 has been victorious in the U.S. Open, supposedly golf’s ultimate test.
I am using my veto to overrule common sense here, and no, this isn’t the first time for that. Yes, Woods and Mickelson can win this week. They are the exceptions. They can do things that never have been done.
The main reason they have a chance this week is the U.S. Golf Association’s setup at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (tee times). The fairways have been widened by Open standards but are flanked by traditional penal rough. Those who love a good conspiracy theory might wonder whether widening the fairways is a way to provide Woods and Mickelson with a better shot at this 118th U.S. Open because they’re playing for history. Woods has won three Opens, has 14 major titles overall and another would put him back in the race to reach golf’s Holy Grail of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. Mickelson needs a U.S. Open to become the sixth golfer to complete the career Grand Slam. His six runner-up Open finishes aren’t just a record; they make him a national Cinderella story.
The USGA likes history, sure, but it likes identifying the best player even better, no matter whom. It’s ludicrous to think the ruling body even would consider favoring any player, so forget that.
What the USGA would like more than anything, I believe, is to host a U.S. Open at which the USGA’s setup (Shinnecock Hills in 2004, when several greens had to be watered midround), the USGA’s choice of sites (Erin Hills in 2017 and Chambers Bay in ’15 were found lacking) or a USGA decision (Dustin Johnson’s ball-moving soap opera at Oakmont in ’16) isn’t an embarrassingly big part of the narrative.
Wider-than-usual-fairways for Shinnecock put Woods and Mickelson in the picture. Accurate driving is the hole in their games, although that hasn’t kept Mickelson from nearly pocketing half a dozen Opens. Winning the Open is supposed to be done with the old Ben Hogan model, fairways and greens, but that’s not quite the modern model.
“Of all the events, you would think this would be the least chance he’d have to win because of the way he’s driven it for most of his career,” Woods, who won Opens in 2000, ’02 and ’08, said of Mickelson. “But his short game is off the charts. A U.S. Open is about wedging it. You can spray it a little bit here and there, but you’ve got to get it up and down from 100 yards, and he’s one of the best of all time at doing that.”
Mickelson’s strengths always have been his iron play – when on, former caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay likes to say, he’s the best iron player in the game – and his putting. Until Jordan Spieth came along, nobody made more putts in the 15-25-foot range than Mickelson.
Lefty ranks second in strokes gained putting this season, which is truly remarkable. And he ranks 10th in strokes gained approach-the-green and 19th in proximity to the pin when hitting from the fairway. Those numbers would make a sweet U.S. Open champion game plan.
Woods is similar in many ways. In his prime, nobody hit it closer to the pin or more often from nearly every distance than he did. His iron play is still a strength. He’s fourth in strokes gained approach-the-green, 10th in strokes gained total and 25th in proximity to the hole.
What’s been missing in his comeback this year has been a piece here, a piece there. His putting has been mostly average, save for that 44-foot must-make bomb that he sank on the 71st hole of the Valspar Championship, an electric Tiger-of-old highlight. He ranks 89th in strokes gained putting, which is a high ranking for him based on his history.
The Tiger of 14 majors, however, is a different player than the current Tiger. We still don’t have a good read on just what might be the ceiling for Tiger 4.0, or whatever we’re calling this comeback. He said he’s been working hard on his putting, very hard.
“I think he’s playing good enough golf to win a tournament at any point in time,” Spieth said. “Nobody would ever count out probably the most clutch putter and short-game player of all time, and he’s striking the ball extremely well. He’s hitting the driver long and straight, working it both ways. It’s a matter of time, in my opinion.”
There have been Tiger flashes, good and bad. He was on a roll at Bay Hill with a chance to win in March until he blew a ball out of bounds at the 16th hole. That was uncharacteristic.
I’m not predicting that Woods or Mickelson will win. The odds are against it, but I award them the respect that they can still do it. The biggest obstacle for both players is the knowledge of where they are in their careers and the understanding that winning means so much more, and winning an Open would mean exponentially more.
If Mickelson wins, it’s the career Grand Slam, the end to his Quixote-like quest for an Open and a record as the oldest champion.
If Woods wins, it’s major championship No. 15 and, well … he’s gonna need a bigger boat.