British Open 2018: Why this event is Tiger Woods' best chance at major No. 15
If Big Cat is going to win another major championship, it will come at an Open Championship
Tiger Woods has been dragging around 14 major championships for nearly 4,000 days. That's a long time, and a heavy burden. So much of what we talk about when we talk about Woods has to do with not whether he'll win the Valspar Championship or get to 82 PGA Tour victories or even whether he will play for a long time. When we talk about Tiger, we talk about when he'll unload that burden with a fresh green jacket, Wanamaker trophy or ... a Claret Jug.
Woods does not have a top 10 at a major championship since July 2013 when he finished T6 at Muirfield as Phil Mickelson played one of the great rounds of his life and went on to win. In fact, since finishing up the 2011 Masters, Woods has just three top 10s at majors overall with two of them have coming at The Open Championship. David Toms has as many top 10s at majors in that stretch.
There are reasons why two of Woods' three top 10s since the 2011 Masters have come at The Open, and it's not coincidence. We'll get to that in a minute, but I should point out that much of this is not necessarily specific to Tiger. The older any player gets, the more likely it is that he will win this major versus all the others. Brandt Snedeker highlighted the primary reason for this on Saturday as he got a practice round in at Carnoustie and hit a drive over 400 yards. Brandt Snedeker!
So as the loss of distance that comes with age piles up at a place like Augusta National -- or good heavens, Erin Hills -- the opposite happens at many Opens. The courses shrink and give us moments like we got in 2009 when Tom Watson, at the eternal age of 59, nearly won the dang golf tournament.
But these are not necessarily reasons why Tiger's best chance to win a major into his mid-40s and early 50s will come at an Open. Tiger is still plenty long. He's currently inside the top 30 on the PGA Tour in average driving distance. Surely that will wane a bit as he gets older, and you will see him get some added benefit from playing an Open versus a Masters, but there are five other more pressing reasons why a Claret Jug is the one trophy of all the big ones that Tiger has the best chance of claiming.
1. No driver necessary: This reason is related to the one above, but it's also more applicable to Woods right now. What has he been worst at since returning to the PGA Tour this year? Gaining strokes off the tee. Woods is currently outside the top 100 in that statistic right now, and as I noted above, it's not because he's short. It's because he's inaccurate. On the other hand, I would wager that nobody has been better off the tee when hitting iron. The PGA Tour doesn't differentiate, but if you've watched Tiger at all this season, you know the stinger, when he wants it, is still there off the tee. That doesn't mean as much at Augusta National where you must go deep with the driver. At a links course with dry, bumpy fairways and the wind either whipping in your face or (more preferably) at your back, it plays.
2. Course knowledge: Tiger is probably the smartest golfer of all time. I'm convinced he's a borderline genius when it comes to thinking about courses, and I'm not even sure if he knows how to put this into words. Plenty of golfers think their way around courses, but very few do it at the level he does and can simultaneously apply all the shots he can apply to the way in which he breaks down courses. Nowhere does that mean more and gain you more traction than at an Open.
3. Elimination of half the field: He talks about this all the time, but The Open is the smallest field in golf when the weather hits. Sure, there are 156 players to start, but 78 of them are more or less eliminated if they get on the incorrect side of the draw. This is more true at an Open than it is at any other major, and if you can get on the proper side of the draw, then you're suddenly playing a field that's smaller than the Masters. This is a benefit that isn't exclusive to Woods, but he certainly reaps the fruit.
4. Inherent toughness: You have to be nasty to win an Open. Mentally, physically, it's not a joke. This is what he's hung his hat on his entire career. There have been questions over the past decade about whether that aspect of his game (his life, even) has been worn down -- whether Y.E. Yang ended him. There's a hint of truth in there, but everyone becomes more broken as time goes on, not less. There's still enough in there that if he's coming home in the wind and the rain late on a Sunday with, say, Hideki Matsuyama or Bryson DeChambeau or Jon Rahm, I know which way I'm leaning.
5. The wedge game is there: Depending on how the wind shapes an Open, your wedge game can become paramount to scoring. I recently watched the "Chronicles of a Champion Golfer" episode with Woods on Netflix, and I was astounded at how many up-and-downs he's had at Opens where he's proved victorious. His numbers around the green this year are good -- really good. Woods is fourth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained around the green, and (again) depending on the weather, this could be the aspect of his game that pushes him over the edge against a lesser foe in coming years.
The Open has not traditionally been Woods' best or most consistent event. Yes, he's won three times, but he's also missed two cuts as a pro and has an average finish of 14.4 in years where he makes the cut. Compare that to no missed cuts as a pro at Augusta and an average finish of 10.0.
However, as his career winds down, I think those two numbers move closer together. I think he'll start to struggle at Augusta more and start to revel more in playing Opens. When you combine all the reasons Woods has always been great -- wicked iron game, mental superiority, toughness -- and apply them to the end of his career, a Claret Jug seems a lot more plausible than maybe any of the other big three trophies he has his sights on when the calendar flips to a new year.
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