We were all rooting for Tiger Woods during the US Open last month. The former world number one was expected to play great golf, and the 69-over total he posted would have been probably more embarrassing for any other player. But it turns out there was some merit to the argument that any tournament being won by a man whose 15 previous majors have all been claimed in career best form, is not only an exception to the rules but a quirk of the universe.
Tiger Woods finished second at the US Open, four shots behind Phil Mickelson
“Just because I’m Tiger Woods doesn’t mean I’m done,” he said in March. “No matter how old I get I’m still going to be, quote, a good player.”
And that might well be true. But it certainly was not the case at the end of the US Open, for a number of reasons.
When Woods was born in 1980, major championship golf was much less of a spectacle than it is today. His only major victory came in the 2000 US Open, when the 26-year-old put paid to his much-anticipated showdown with then defending champion Phil Mickelson in his adopted hometown of Dallas. The tension was palpable, with the dramatic winner’s celebration filmed for posterity.
Many thought that victory would validate the callum with his exploits in young adulthood, to be his ultimate coronation, if not a declaration of his place in the pantheon of greatest golfers of all time. But it didn’t happen. A short fling at the US Open at Medinah in 2002 failed spectacularly, and Woods experienced more dubious moments in successive major championships at the 2003 US PGA Championship, when he was four shots behind the leader going into the final round at Oak Hill and four back at St Andrews.
As recently as 2014, Woods was something of a shoo-in to add to his total of 14 major titles. Three more titles followed, and he slowly chipped away at that 17-major record. But after clocking up a modest three finishes inside the top-25 in the majors that follow the Masters, a lack of career form and then public defeat by a 42-year-old wildcard entrant in his last two events meant he stopped feeling like the world’s best golfer. In 2016 he surrendered his number one world ranking for the first time in a decade, and the two major events he missed out on last year became a fresh source of frustration.
When it looked as though Woods might actually be on his way out of the game, events at the Presidents Cup at Melbourne last December looked ominous for the 22-time winner. At the 2016 Ryder Cup captain Davis Love brought the introduction of a ‘win or you’re out’ rule to a sixth competition, the Presidents Cup. The fairytale that day was that Woods found a match that never happened. After missed cuts at the Honda Classic and the US Open, his hopes of reclaiming the number one ranking appeared over. And yet at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational this year, a final-round 74 left him one shot off the lead.
Underdogs for the majors
This week at the British Open a defeatist attitude may be reappearing. Woods, as he did in that final round at last month’s US Open, is being spoken of as the victor. “He didn’t win in Chicago, so he’s an underdog this week. This is a big chance for him,” says Chris Grove of Golf magazine.
Tiger Woods’s best and worst Open finishes overall
The pundits and pickers will clamour for Woods to show what he can still do. But given his recent history, it’s hard to take them seriously.
He has not won a major in six years and has not regained the top ranking since 2006. “My best was a long time ago,” he told reporters after his disappointing performance at Merion, adding with a shrug: “I’ve had a pretty good run.”
And why wouldn’t he? It was his victory at Pebble Beach in 2000 that started the surge back from the abyss, and his serial improvement after every major has followed. At all those events he has beaten players who now appear to be the very best.
And, anyway, his good form doesn’t appear to be something you can pick from a sleeve. Woods won seven tournaments this year – he led the field in accuracy and averaged a good distance, but his worst finish was sixth. In fact, his form just hasn’t been there.