Will he or won't he?
Tiger Woods's latest date with destiny arrives next week, when
the 129th British Open is played at St. Andrews, Scotland. He
goes to that tournament as the most overwhelming favorite the
game has ever known. Woods has more working for him than the
momentum of his rampage at the U.S. Open, a 15-stroke victory
that left indelible imprints on his competitors' psyches as well
as on the record books. Woods will enjoy a tremendous advantage
on the Old Course, an expansive canvas that so rewards length
that John Daly overpowered the links the last time the Open
Championship came to town, in 1995. Emerging from two weeks off
following the U.S. Open, Woods finished a lackluster 23rd last
week at the Advil Western Open at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club,
in the Chicago area, but no matter. Because this was the last
Stateside run-up before the British Open, Woods and his chances
at the Old Course dominated conversation throughout the
So, will he or won't he? "No one is invincible, but on that
course Tiger is pretty close," says Jim Furyk, who tied for third
at the Western, two shots out of a playoff between Robert Allenby
and Nick Price, which Allenby won with a par on the first hole.
"Daly won with his length," says Lee Janzen, 15th in Chicago. "He
took all the trouble out of play. Tiger has the same length, but
he also has Nicklaus's mind and Seve's short game. So what do you
July 16, 2000
"The game's not as easy as Tiger is making it look right now,"
says Price, the '94 British Open champ and a voice in the
wilderness because he is not ready to concede the tournament
before it has begun. "We all know he's the best player in the
world, but the bottom line is this: He can't win every time he
tees it up."
As is always the case with Woods, looking to Jack Nicklaus's
career provides some useful context. Nicklaus's dominance began
with his victory at the '62 U.S. Open and effectively ended with
his triumph at the '80 PGA. This remarkable run comprised 75
majors, of which Nicklaus won 17, for a .227 batting average.
From his epochal victory at the '97 Masters to last month's U.S.
Open, Woods played in 14 majors, winning three--a .214 average.
(Good thing these guys aren't baseball players.) Even the most
dominant golfers in history lose more than three out of every
four majors, and winning back-to-back majors in the same year is
such a daunting task that Nicklaus did it only once (the '72
Masters and U.S. Open).
Then again, Woods has constructed a legend out of defying the
odds, and more than the usual amount of mojo is at work here.
This British Open is imbued with significance that far exceeds
the round numbers of the millennium. The setting is the home of
golf, St. Andrews, and with a victory Woods will become only the
fifth, and the youngest, player to have won a career Grand Slam.
"He's loving it," says Woods's buddy and Isleworth, Fla.,
neighbor, Stuart Appleby. "He's pumped about getting the career
Slam, and he's pumped about doing it at St. Andrews."
There are really three British Opens: the ones in England, which
are nice; the ones in Scotland, which are better; and the ones in
St. Andrews, which are best of all. Nicklaus knew it, and Woods
does too. "St. Andrews is what the game really means," Nicklaus
said following his win there in '70. "I wanted to be part of St.
Andrews. I wanted to win on the Old Course."
Says Woods, "To have an opportunity to complete the career Grand
Slam at the course where it all started is very symbolic." Woods
has treated the game's two other great cathedrals--Augusta
National and Pebble Beach--with all the delicacy of Godzilla
sightseeing in Manhattan. The key to both victories was
outstanding putting. It was shoddy work with the flat stick at
the Western that sent Woods skidding toward his worst showing of
the year. (Remarkably, the Western and his 18th-place finish in
the Nissan Open are the only times in 12 tournaments that Woods
has been out of the top five this year.)
Woods's ball striking was solid during the first round of the
Western (he hit 16 greens), but 33 ghastly jabs with the putter
doomed him to a two-under 70. He followed with 31 more putts on
Friday (shooting 69) and, after 28 putts during a third-round 70,
was moved to say, "I'm putting like I need a Seeing Eye dog. It's
so bad it's a joke. Some weeks even the bad putts go in. This
week the good putts are lipping out, and the bad ones aren't even
Is Woods concerned that there will be a carryover into the
British? "No, not at all," he says. "I was putting pretty bad
going into the U.S. Open, and that turned out all right."
Woods has earned the right to be flip, but the fact remains that
his streaky putting could be his downfall next week. According to
Price, "Putting is the hardest part of St. Andrews. It's very
easy to hit all 18 greens there and still shoot 75." The grainy,
sunbaked, windswept greens on the Old Course cover a total of six
acres, and they are so outsized that while playing the 5th hole
during the 1970 Open, Lee Trevino, fighting for the lead,
mistakenly aimed at the wrong flag on the double green.
Compounding the difficulty is that many of the greens are
elevated, making them susceptible to gusts of wind. During the
final round of that '70 Open the wind blew in excess of 50 mph.
"Preparing to play your putt," Nicklaus wrote in a first-person
piece in SI, "you did not study the contours of the green;
instead, you checked the wind." Even so, Nicklaus--arguably the
best clutch putter ever--had five three-putts during that round,
including one on the 72nd hole.
Nicklaus's subsequent victory is noteworthy because it
illustrates the learning curve all players must go through on the
idiosyncratic Old Course. At his first British Open there, in
1964, Nicklaus arrived at the height of his powers yet finished
five strokes behind the winner, Tony Lema. Nicklaus stubbornly
tried to play a fade off every tee, even into a left-to-right
wind. In '70 Nicklaus shaped his shots both ways and hit 69 of 72
greens in regulation.
"The first tournament you play over there is basically a
sacrifice," says Janzen, as Woods would also find out as a
long-and-wrong amateur at the '95 British Open. He started
respectably, 74-71-72, then shot 78 in a gale to finish 68th.
Woods calls that first taste "an awesome experience." He returned
to St. Andrews in October 1998 for the Dunhill Cup, just as his
swing changes were beginning to coalesce. He opened 66-70-66,
then went three under through the first 10 holes of his final
round. Had it been a regular medal-play tournament, he would have
been 20 under, six ahead of the field. Woods bogeyed the 11th and
12th holes, then missed a six-footer for par on the Road Hole to
fall a stroke behind Spain's Santiago Luna, his opponent that day
in the medal-match format. On the 72nd hole Woods drove into the
Valley of Sin in front of the green, but blew a four-footer for
birdie, losing the match and bouncing the U.S. from the
Woods obviously is a different player now, but that Dunhill shows
not only how low he could go at the Old Course, but also how
quickly fortunes can change on that unpredictable track. "A lot
of your success at the British Open comes down to a roll of the
dice," says Bill Glasson, who was leading the '95 Open until he
hit the St. Andrews Hotel with his tee ball on the Road Hole in
the second round. "The first two days you've got a 10-hour block
of tee times and the weather can change dramatically, so you can
really get screwed. With Tiger a lot will depend on the weather.
If it's dry leading up to the tournament and throughout that
week, then the course plays hard and fast, just the way Pebble
did, and he wins by 10. If it's wet and soft, that brings a lot
of guys into the picture, because it doesn't take as much skill
to score in those conditions." Pause, followed by a chuckle.
"Then he only wins by two or three."
Price points to the benign conditions at the Open at the Old
Course in '90, when the flagsticks were limp for all four days.
Nick Faldo, a short hitter, rode pinpoint accuracy and a flawless
game plan to a winning score of 18-under 270, up to that point
the second lowest in the tournament's august history. If Faldo's
bland robotics are the polar opposite of Woods's artistic
improvisation, perhaps there is something to be learned there,
too. "You hear a lot of talk about the Old Course being a
freewheeler's course, but it also demands incredible discipline,"
says Price. "There are many times when you have a sand wedge in
your hand and you absolutely have to aim away from the flag."
Woods's aggressiveness, a balky putting stroke, unpredictable
conditions--any or all could sabotage his bid for history. Yet he
hardly seems stressed by the possibilities. On Sunday evening he
boarded a plane with Allenby, Appleby, Janzen, David Duval, Rocco
Mediate and Mark O'Meara for Ireland and his annual pre-Open
sojourn. Ballybunion, Royal County Down and Waterville are on the
itinerary, but, says Woods, "We try not to let the golf get in
the way of our fishing."
The trip, while relaxing, also serves as a reintroduction to
links golf, which Woods loves. "Every minute of it," he says.
"Just to be able to play so many different kinds of shots..."
His words trail off dreamily.
One of the most memorable shots of Woods's links career came at
the Old Course, during the final round of the '95 British. On the
6th hole he found himself 40 yards shy of the front of the green,
playing into the teeth of the wind. After examining his many
options, Woods whipped out his putter and rolled his ball to
within 10 feet of the cup, setting up a most unusual up-and-down.
"I've told that story so many times," Woods said last week,
though he showed plenty of enthusiasm in another retelling. It
seems with Woods some things never get old.
Winning, for instance. So, will he or won't he? Our guess is that
"I'm putting like I need a Seeing Eye dog," Woods says. Is he
concerned there will be a carryover next week? "No, not at all."