- Tiger Woods is coming off arguably the biggest win of his career and has had plenty of success at Bethpage Black in the past. Can Woods claim his second straight major this week at the PGA Championship?
For the first time since returning from spinal fusion surgery, Tiger Woods enters a major championship week as the Vegas favorite to hoist the trophy. It’s not hard to understand why. Just five weeks ago, he methodically worked his way up the leaderboard to win at Augusta, slamming an exclamation point on one of the unlikeliest redemption stories in sports history.
That was the last time we saw Tiger play—he opted to skip every event between the Masters and the PGA Championship, so the most recent image we have of Woods is him in that red mock turtleneck, his focus as steely as ever, firing approach shots directly at flagsticks.
There’s also his history at this week’s host venue, Bethpage Black. Woods won the first U.S. Open ever held at the People’s Country Club back in ’02, a virtuoso performance in which he held the solo lead after every round and prevailed by three. When the Open returned to the Black for a rain-soaked week in 2009, Woods recovered from an opening-round 74 to eventually finish in a tie for sixth, just four behind Lucas Glover’s winning four-under total.
He’s playing fantastic golf, and while the PGA of America will set up Bethpage differently than the USGA did, there’s clearly a level of comfort with the layout. That, combined with the simple but always relevant fact that Woods knows how to navigate major championships better than anyone else, gives Tiger fans plenty of reason to believe he’ll be halfway to the Grand Slam by this time next week.
That scenario—one which seemed so patently impossible not too long ago—is certainly possible, but it’s far from a sure thing. Here are some reasons why Tiger will, and won’t, win the 2019 PGA Championship.
Why Tiger will win
• Iron play. Woods is, for my money, still the best irons player in the world. No one varies their trajectory or the shape of their approach shots like he can, and no one’s dispersion is as tight as his when he’s feeling himself. Consider his round on Sunday at Augusta—he shot a two-under 70 despite making no putt longer than eight feet all day. That doesn’t happen if you aren’t hitting your irons exceptionally well.
Woods ranks No. 14 in strokes gained approaching the green this season, but that number would be higher if it factored in data from Augusta (the Masters does not use the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, so strokes gained information is not readily available). He’s led the Tour in that statistic in every year he’s been eligible apart from 2018, when he finished third, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be near the very top by year’s end. He is seventh in approaches from 150-175 yards, fifth in approaches from 175-200 yards and third in approaches from 200+ yards. Those are all crucial statistics given how long Bethpage Black will play—there won’t be many short irons hit into par 4s all week, so the mid-to-long irons need to be dialed in.
He also leads the Tour in greens in regulation percentage, and he hit three more greens (58) than anyone else at the Masters, which allowed him to win despite a good-but-not-great putting week.
Hitting a bunch of greens is always of the utmost importance at majors and will once again be so at Bethpage, which features smallish greens surrounded by intricate bunker complexes and gnarly rough. You just can’t afford to be scrambling for pars if you’re going to contend, and Woods’ elite iron play means he’s rarely doing that.
• Momentum. Woods recently called his Masters victory the greatest achievement he’s had on a golf course. As far as confidence-boosters go, it doesn’t get much better than that. But Woods’ major championship momentum goes back further than five weeks. Keep in mind that he’s now had a legitimate chance to win each of the last three majors. One could be a fluke, two a trend, but three suggests this could be the norm, rather than the exception, moving forward.
Tiger's decision not to play between Augusta and Bethpage has been scrutinized—does it mean he’s hurt? Tired? Some combination of both?—but I’m not so concerned by it. That week certainly took a lot out of him, both physically and mentally, and non-major events (with all due respect to the Wells Fargo Championship) don’t matter much to Woods at this stage of this career. Plus, nothing that would have happened at Quail Hollow would give Woods any more confidence than what he already has from Augusta. He will arrive at Bethpage rested, refreshed and ready to answer all the questions Bethpage will ask.
• This won’t play like a U.S. Open. Yes, Tiger finished first and sixth in the two U.S. Opens at Bethpage, but the most recent of those tournaments was a full decade ago. He’s struggled considerably in more recent U.S. Opens—he missed the cut in each of his last two starts, shooting a combined score of 26 over par. He hasn’t played the weekend at a U.S. Open since 2013 and doesn’t have a top 10 since 2010. I’m not so sure a Bethpage set up like it was in ’02 or ’09 would benefit this version of Tiger Woods.
The good news for him is that the USGA isn’t in charge this week; the PGA of America is, and they like their tournaments to be won with birdies. Lots of them. The average winning score across the last five PGAs is 15 under par.
I’d be shocked if Bethpage turns into a Bellerive-like birdie fest, but don’t expect knee-high rough or rock-hard greens or a cut of eight over par, like we saw last year at Shinnecock. The course will look more like it did at the 2016 Barclays—a normal-ish PGA Tour setup, where missing the fairway will be penal but not fatal (the winning score that week was nine under). That plays into Woods' hands. He is driving it straighter than he has in a number of years, but he’s still prone to some big misses—think Nos. but e2 and 11 on Sunday at Augusta. That those won’t automatically result in bogeys or worse this week bodes well for Tiger.
Why Tiger won’t win
• This isn’t Augusta. Augusta is probably the most unique course the pros play all year. It’s the place where local knowledge is most beneficial—that’s why you see certain guys like Bernhard Langer play well there seemingly every year, even when they’re well past their primes—and it forces players to hit shots they don’t have to the rest of the year. Woods has always found a way to paste together four solid rounds at Augusta, even when his game is a complete mess. Masters success often doesn’t translate to other tournaments. Simply put, it’s a beast of its own, and results there should be processed with a grain of salt.
Masters aside, Woods’ stroke-play results in 2019 have been just okay: T20, T15, T10, T30. Prior to Augusta, he hadn’t finished closer than eight behind the winner in any tournament this year. And while he did win here in 2002, the golf course is going to look more like it did the last time he played an event at Bethpage: the 2012 Barclays, when he finished T38. The fairways are much narrower than Augusta’s and the green complexes aren’t nearly as severe, which rewarded Woods’ precise iron play. Bethpage is still a good fit for Woods, all things considered, but it doesn’t offer the home-course advantage that he enjoys at Augusta.
• Emotional letdown. At the nadir of his injury woes, when Woods thought he’d never play golf again, he told the media “anything beyond here will be gravy.” He got heaps and heaps of gravy at Augusta, and he most certainly took ample time to let his achievement sink in and celebrate. That week took a ton out of him, physically, mentally and emotionally, and that’s why he hasn’t teed it up anywhere since.
This isn’t to question Woods’ motivation—he is, by all accounts, one of the fiercest competitors ever in sport—but perhaps he isn’t as prepared for the PGA as he was for the Masters, which he said he began readying himself for just weeks after winning the Tour Championship. Could you blame him for putting the clubs away for a bit, kicking his feet up and drinking in his accomplishment? Of course you couldn’t. But you couldn’t say that going through that much emotionally—even if it’s positive emotion—just weeks before this tournament is ideal preparation.
• It’s a numbers game. It cannot be overstated how hard it is to win a major championship in today’s game, when there are 30+ players who are legitimately good enough to win on their week. Brooks Koepka looms large, as do Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas and Justin Rose and Francesco Molinari and Rickie Fowler and so, so many other players. Even if Woods is as good (if not better than) all the guys I just named, simple probability dictates that at least one world-class player is going to be firing on all cylinders this week. Think of last year’s PGA—Tiger played well enough to win pretty much any golf tournament…but Koepka played just a little bit better. This isn’t 2002, when even Woods’ B game was good enough to get it done. He’s one of the best players in the world, maybe even the best, but he’s not miles ahead of everyone else.
On a more micro scale, think of what needed to happen for him to win at Augusta. Francesco Molinari had to collapse. Koepka had to find the water on 12 and miss two makeable birdie putts on 17 and 18. Dustin Johnson had to wait until the 8th hole to make his first birdie of the day…and Tiger still only won by one stroke. He’s put himself in position to win each of the last three majors, but he’s only won one of them. There’s a solid chance Woods plays another great event this week but doesn’t hoist the trophy.