- Tiger Woods failed to make it to the weekend at Bethpage Black, but his game and his body are in much better shape heading into Pebble Beach.
In the press conference following his Masters victory, Tiger Woods was asked when was the moment he truly believed he could win at Augusta. It was a fair question—his results on the year coming into the first major were only okay. He hadn’t missed a cut but he also hadn’t finished a stroke-play event closer than eight shots behind the champion. Still, Woods said he was encouraged enough by his ball striking in those tournaments to believe he had a chance to get major No. 15, leaderboards be damned.
How do we explain that level of confidence despite having not contended on a Sunday afternoon all season? At this point in his career, winning non-majors is a nice bonus but hardly the objective for Tiger. The singular focus is peaking for the four biggest events in the sport, and that means using “regular” Tour events as glorified tune-ups. They are, so to speak, a testing ground for Woods to grow comfortable with his swing and the shots he’ll need in his arsenal to navigate a major championship. By the time Augusta rolled around, he felt comfortable hitting cuts off draw lies and turning over his driver and nipping high spinners. That, more than any result, gave him reason to believe his game was where it needed to be.
Given that context, it’s safe to say that Tiger’s performance in the Memorial Tournament—despite finishing a full 10 shots behind Patrick Cantlay’s winning total—was ideal preparation for the U.S. Open, which somehow begins in just 10 days. Yes, he posted three under-par rounds on a major-style golf course and yes, he closed with a 67 that vaulted him into a backdoor T9 finish. But it’s the manner in which he played, particularly on Sunday, that should be most encouraging for Woods and his fans.
Woods’ greatest strength throughout his career has been his iron play, and that’s also been the case in this most recent comeback. He won the Masters largely with his approach play. He hit a number of shots to tap-in range that week and hardly ever missed in the wrong places, allowing him to win the tournament despite having a less-than-stellar putting week. The iron play was again terrific at the Memorial, as he picked up more than five shots on the field approaching the greens and ranked ninth in that stat for the week. But Tiger’s iron play is almost always dialed in. The same can’t be said for his play off the tee, which is going to be crucial at Pebble Beach.
While the two most recent editions of our national championship (Shinnecock and Erin Hills) have featured generous fairways, Pebble will be setup like a classic U.S. Open. The fairways will be quite narrow and the penalty for missing them will be severe. A good driving week at the Memorial was just what the doctor ordered and just what Tiger summoned. He hit 42 of 56 fairways at Muirfield Village, including 12 of 14 during the final-round 67. And he did so using a variety of shots—the long iron stinger was there:
The butter-cut driver, which he relied on heavily at Augusta, also appears to be grooved. This is his go-to shot. The swing is less violent (113-115 miles per hour instead of the 118-120 range when he wants to crank one). He starts it down the left side and trusts that it will peel back into the fairway:
Just as crucially, Woods is also comfortable ripping a high draw when he has to. This will come in handy on holes like the long par-4 No. 2 at Pebble, and the par-5 No. 14:
“Each day I got a little more crisp,” Woods told reporters after Sunday’s round. “I had a few mistakes and didn’t keep the card as clean as I’d like. A couple of loose iron shots here and there, but overall I drove it great this week.”
Overall, Woods finished 26th for the week in storkes gained off the tee, a huge improvement from his overall season rank of No. 70. It was a stark contrast from the last time we saw Woods play, at Bethpage Black, when he couldn’t find a fairway for the life of him. On Friday at the PGA, Woods hit just 3 of 14 fairways en route to a three-over 73 that saw him miss the cut.
Despite that putrid showing off the tee, Woods was relatively upbeat after that round. He knew that he wasn’t adequately prepared, mentally or physically, for that week. He took some time to drink in his Augusta accomplishment, which affected his pre-tournament work, and he came down with an untimely illness, which limited his practice rounds to a single 9 holes on Tuesday morning. Gone are the days when Woods can simply show up to a tournament and find a way to contend; he needs to have his body and his mind in the right place, and neither was in order at Bethpage. After a week off, Woods arrived at Muirfield looking sprightly and re-energized. The proverbial pep was back in his step, and he looked much more like the man who won the Masters than the man who labored to a missed cut at the PGA Championship.
Woods now gets another week off before he’ll head out west to Pebble Beach, the site of arguably his most impressive feat ever: winning the 2000 U.S. Open by a record 15 shots.
There are, of course, a number of players who will love their chances next week. Brooks Koepka warrants the first mention, as he has blossomed into the world’s best player and is the two-time defending U.S. Open champion. Dustin Johnson has finished second in the first two majors of the year and has a fantastic history at Pebble Beach. After going 25 starts without posting a top 10, Jordan Spieth now has three in a row and he, too, has won at Pebble Beach. And Cantlay is absolutely good enough to win a major—he, Johnson and Koepka are the only players who finished in the top 10 at both Augusta and Bethpage.
In order to compete (and ultimately beat) those players, Woods will have to play four fantastic rounds of golf. And even then, it might not be enough. But one thing is for certain—he’ll only have a chance if he’s ready. He wasn’t ready for Bethpage, and he missed the cut. He was ready for Augusta, and he won.
He’s ready for Pebble.