Keeping Score

Carnoustie offers Woods best shot to win

His comeback has turned into a mixture of hype, hope and hardcore reality. At age 42, Tiger Woods is an average tour pro with a remarkable past, a man whose attempt to reclaim the glory days has led to an arm-wrestling match against Father Time. We’ve seen glimpses of greatness. We’ve also seen a guy who can’t get out of his own way.

So, the new Tiger isn’t exactly the old Tiger, although the older Tiger isn’t exactly a neutered house cat, either. Woods will play in his 11th event of 2018 at this week’s Quicken Loans National, his only appearance between the missed cut in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and next month’s British Open. Given that his third-round scoring average (68.5) is a whopping three strokes lower than his first two rounds, Woods probably should be playing more often.

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Although Tiger Woods returns to action this week in the Quicken Loans National, next month’s British Open presents his best chance to win again.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Although Tiger Woods returns to action this week in the Quicken Loans National, next month’s British Open presents his best chance to win again.

Poor starts have undermined his chances at several tournaments. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, however, it’s that Woods really doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

For a variety of reasons, the British Open could be his best chance to win all season. Carnoustie can be a very difficult course in adverse conditions, and throughout his career, Woods has excelled when a single-digit total under par leaves a player in contention. Yes, he looked vulnerable two weeks ago at unforgiving Shinnecock, but he cost himself five strokes from the first fairway alone. If he walks away with a bogey in each instance, Woods makes the cut. Who knows what happens from there?

Five of the past seven British Open champions have been 39 or older, which suggests that experience, adaptability and course management play a larger role at the year’s third major championship. Woods hasn’t come close to stringing together four good rounds in a week, but on days when a 73 won’t hurt him, his unparalleled competitive fight could prove very handy, his skill at salvaging pars an invaluable asset.

Statistically, Woods’ greatest strength has been his long-iron play, his most obvious weakness an inability to drive the ball straight. In 2006, he dumped his driver after just one swing and used his 3-wood and irons off the tees to navigate firm-and-fast Royal Liverpool. He led the field in fairways hit and won the tournament a month after missing the cut at the U.S. Open, so there is a precedent here, even if it’s a bit dated.

That said, Woods is the most prolific winner in golf’s modern era, and there has been enough evidence in 2018 to suggest that his days as a winner are not entirely done. Even after wasting a chance to make some noise at Shinnecock, he finished that Friday birdie-birdie to at least threaten the cutline. He was gone too long to intimidate other players the way he once did, but he remains an unmistakable presence.

There is no substitute for having been there and done that. You watch a solid veteran such as Paul Casey struggle to hold a lead under Sunday pressure at the Travelers Championship, then come apart once the lead has disappeared, and it’s easy to think that some guys just can’t deal with the heat.

Three months ago, Casey happened to pick up his first U.S. victory in nine years, completing his round at Innisbrook well ahead of the final groups. Woods, in the second-to-last pairing, finished one stroke back. We’ll never know what might’ve happened if Casey had been playing behind Woods.

Some guys can finish, and some guys can’t.

“I keep getting just a little bit better and a little bit sharper,” Woods said that evening. “A couple of putts here and there, and it could have been a different story.”

The story did change, but not in a way that many people hoped. After a fast start in his return to competitive golf, Woods cooled off. Since his drive sailed out of bounds on the 70th hole at Bay Hill a week after Innisbrook, he has looked quite ordinary. Just six of 18 rounds in the 60s, and perhaps as significantly, just five tournaments in those 3½ months.

His best golf occurred during his busiest stretch – three starts in four weeks on the Florida Swing. Woods’ comeback has been impressive, but a man who has won 79 PGA Tour events, including 14 major titles, does not enhance his legacy with a handful of top-10s. Those shortcomings at the U.S. Open should only fuel the inner-Tiger, leaving him with a suitcase full of motivation when he travels overseas.

The bookies in Las Vegas listed him at 25-1 for Carnoustie. There are worse ways to spend your money.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com


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