Despite his recent struggles, Tiger Woods still believes he can match Jack Nicklaus’ all-time career major record of 18. First, he needs to capture that elusive 15th major at this week’s Open Championship, held at the Old Course at St Andrews, where he won in the 2000 and 2005 editions. Of course, he does, right? After all, if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be competing, not to mention he would never admit it.
“I’m still young,” said Woods when asked if he still felt that Nicklaus’ record was in reach or too far out of sight. “I’m not 40 yet. I know some of you guys think I’m buried and done, but I’m still right here in front of you.
“I love playing. I love competing, and I love playing these events.”
It’s no secret that Woods hasn’t had the best season in the world. Shortly after playing only 11 holes in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he’s had much success, before he withdrew due to stiffness in his back, he announced a self-imposed leave of absence. The previous week in his 2015 debut, he shot rounds of 73-82 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open to miss the cut. Two months later, he returned from his “break” to play The Masters and recorded his best finish of the year with a tie for 17th.
Following that, Woods, who secured his last victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in 2013, floundered in his next several starts. While he made the cut at The Players and The Memorial, he finished nearly last of those who played over the weekend, not to mention he carded an 85 in the third round at Muirfield Village. In the second major of the year, the U.S. Open, Woods shot 80-76 to miss the cut by a while and nearly grab DFL honors.
However, he’s been insistent that he turned a corner at The Memorial with his swing changes, working with his “swing consultant” Chris Como.
“I’ve made a pretty big baseline shift at Memorial this year,” said Woods, who has won the Open three times. “That was actually one of the tougher things to do. Granted, that’s not exactly the easiest golf course in the world, either, but I did it, and consequently I ended up playing well at Greenbrier and hit the ball the best I’ve hit it in probably two years on Sunday.
“So that was awfully nice to be able to do coming into this week. I’ve hit the ball just as well then in my practice rounds.”
Woods, who finished T32 at his last start at the Greenbrier Classic, actually finished ranked first in proximity to the hole, which means his iron play was excellent. (By the way, it’s hilarious to me that people are saying he’s coming into The Open in good form when he didn’t even sniff contending.)
“I had some pretty apparent flaws in my technique,” said a seemingly relaxed Woods on Tuesday morning in his pre-tourney presser. “That’s one of the reasons why I shut it down after Torrey and Pebble and consequently I was able to turn things around, and I had a chance to win the Masters this year. We made another shift at Memorial, and it worked out perfectly.
“I hit the ball great at Greenbrier. It was the first time I had led proximity to the hole with my iron play in I don’t know how many years. It’s been a while. So that was a very, very good sign. And as bad as I putted that week, I was only four shots out of a playoff.”
Speaking of which, Woods has worked on his putting and made a couple of changes in the past few weeks.
“My lines were slightly off in my setup,” he explained. “I also regripped my putter. After a certain amount of time, the grip does become smaller, and we were having to towel it off before every putt, and that gets annoying.
“So I decided to put a fresh one on there, and when it’s fresh like that, it’s just slightly bigger. I’ve used that grip for probably maybe a year-and-a-half or so, so you can see my indentations of my fingers in there, and that’s probably a time when it’s time to change it.”
With many players noting the different, softer conditions at St Andrews this year compared to previous Opens, Woods will adjust his strategy to attack the golf course, accordingly.
“You can run the ball up here on a lot of the holes,” said Woods. “It won’t really be doing that this week because it’s a little bit softer, but still, you have that option. You know, a five-degree wind change here changes the whole golf course completely. I’ve always found that very fascinating.”
The last time Woods saw the course this soft was at the ’98 Dunhill Cup. It was obviously colder temperature-wise as it was played in October, but the firmness is comparable.
“(The ball is) just not quite chasing,” he said. “Actually, yesterday I had two wedge shots actually backed up, and I can’t remember ever backing up a wedge shot here on this golf course. That’s going to be a little bit different. I think we’re going to have to fly the ball a little bit deeper into the greens. You can’t quite chase it like we normally do. It’s going to be probably just — just going to have to be a little bit more aggressive in the air than in years past.”
(Aside: Think about the damage Rory McIlroy could have done with the soft conditions at St Andrews this year. Again, it’s a shame that he injured himself at such an inopportune time, with two major venues suiting his game so well.)
Woods is confident coming into the Open at St Andrews, not only because he’s had success here in the past, but also he likes the way he’s moving the ball and controlling his trajectory, which are keys to tackling links golf.
“I’m hitting the ball much, much more solid,” he said. “I’m controlling my flights. Coming in here, being able to shape the golf ball not only both ways but also changed my trajectories, as well, and being very comfortable changing my trajectories. That’s something that I feel you have to do here on this golf course.
“You have to be able to maneuver the golf ball because there’s a big difference of hitting the ball low with a draw and hitting the ball low with a cut. Sometimes it can be 30 to 50 yards’ difference in how the ball reacts on the ground, and to be able to understand that and to be able to control that, I think that’s very important.”
A well-known fact is the importance of experience when competing at the Old Course — there are always exceptions, naturally, but local knowledge goes a long ways, especially when it comes to the different wind directions.
“I think experience counts a lot with the varied wind conditions,” said Woods. “I think that’s where experience comes into play. You have to hit the ball well. You have to really lag putt well here. But if you haven’t seen the golf course in various winds, bunkers that you don’t even see on the yardage book because you’re not playing it, you don’t see it with that wind, all of a sudden become apparent. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed over the years that I’ve played here is that it does help playing practice rounds with, for me, some of the older players and getting their experience at how do you hit shots, where do you play here.
“Sometimes you’ve got to play into adjacent fairways. That’s not something you try and do on purpose back in the States. I’ve hit shots in adjacent fairways but never on purpose, but here, it does work to your advantage at times because then that will give you actually the best angle. It’s also sometimes the shortest route to carry bunkers or mounds or rough.”
In his practice round yesterday, Woods played with Matt Kuchar, who hit a shot over 12 grandstand to position his ball onto the 6th fairway.
“(Kuchar) was asking do we actually play over here?,” recalled Woods. “I said, yeah, you play over here with certain pins in certain winds. He goes, okay, whatever I do, just don’t smother it!”
Speaking of experience, much has been discussed over Jordan Spieth’s decision to play in the John Deere Classic instead of arriving early to prepare for St Andrews, as he’s trying to win his third major in a row. Woods implied that luck will have a bit of factor, depending on which side of the draw Spieth catches and battling the elements. The winner of the season’s first two majors also needs to plays the course in a few different wind directions, among other things.
“He’s playing well, obviously,” said Woods. “He’s won two major championships and just won last week. Obviously he’s in great form. It’s just a matter of going out there and executing his game plan. I mean, that’s what he talks about a lot is formulating a game plan and executing it, and this is a golf course in which you have to do that.
“You have to execute it and trust it and be a very good lag putter because you’re going to have a good shot sometimes is going to be 40, 50, 60, 70 feet away, and you just can’t get it close — the wind is blowing too hard. To be able to lag putt those putts stone dead is very key.”