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John Huggan: Tiger Woods missing his mettle

Tiger Woods at Turnberry in 2009. Picture: Getty

Tiger Woods at Turnberry in 2009. Picture: Getty

  • by JOHN HUGGAN
 

AT THE time, it was hailed as surely the second-best performance of his already storied career, behind only the 15-shot US Open victory at Pebble Beach in 2000.

And now, eight years on, the masterclass of shot-making and course management Tiger Woods displayed around Royal Liverpool’s Hoylake links en route to his third – and so far last – Open Championship victory has lost little of its resonance.

“That week was far and away the best ball-striking tournament he ever had,” claims Woods’ former swing instructor Hank Haney. “Considering the length of the approach shots he was hitting on most holes, I’m not sure anyone has ever played better than Tiger did at Hoylake.”

And there’s the rub, of course. For those inclined to nitpicking, the fact that Woods hit but one of his 270 shots with his driver somehow diminishes the significance and impressiveness of his overall performance. Time after time, the then 30-year-old Californian teed off with either his 2-iron or, occasionally, his 3-wood. But a closer and more educated study reveals how appropriate that strategy was, given the burned-out nature of the course and the particular strengths of Woods’ game.

“Hoylake was the perfect golf course for Tiger at the time,” continues Haney, who coached Woods to six of his 14 major victories. “He figured the place out by himself pretty quickly. In his first practice round he stood on the first tee and hit a driver. But it was immediately obvious that he was wasting his time doing that – he could get the job done just by running a 2-iron out there.

“He hit drivers off the second and third tees that day too, just to confirm what he thought. But that was it. He looked at every hole and hit a ‘stinger’ 2-iron out there into the ideal spots. He had that shot back then. He would hit it low, the ball landing at about the 200-yard mark and running out another 75 yards or so. Which was easy for him. He was so confident in his ability to hit that shot.

“The other big thing in Tiger’s favour was that he was the only guy in the field who could hit the stinger far enough on a consistent basis. He had the power to do that. If he hit it perfectly – which he usually did – it would run out just short of the fairway bunkers. No matter how good or hard or low he hit that 2-iron, he could never reach the trouble.”

Still, some things have changed since the long, hot summer of 2006. Woods has not won a major championship in more than six years. The stinger hasn’t been seen for ages. His body has let him down more than once. And he is, quite clearly, not nearly the golfer he once was.

The numbers, in fact, are startling, even allowing for the fact that Woods has not played enough rounds this year to register in any PGA Tour statistical category, or that the events he has appeared in have been held on the tougher courses. For example, were he eligible for ranking, his average of 289.6 yards would rank 91st in driving distance. He would be 179th in driving accuracy (53.57 per cent) and 193rd (or second-to-last) in both greens in regulation (56.48 per cent) and three-putt avoidance (5.56 per cent). Only someone called Bobby Gates hits fewer greens than Woods and only Kyle Stanley is a worse putter. Changed days indeed.

“What was true back in 2006 is even more applicable today,” comments Haney. “If Tiger has an opportunity not to hit a driver that’s what he is going to do. The driver has always been a problem for him, the fear [of] hitting into spots from where there is no possibility of recovery. Running as fast as Hoylake was, it didn’t take that bad a shot to find those places either. By playing the way he did, Tiger made the course wider. But it was incredibly tight if you went with the driver. There are plenty of penalties out there – out of bounds and pot bunkers.

“Tiger’s thought process was that he was going to be the only player in the field not to be adding penalty shots to his score. Any time you have to hit out sideways, that’s a one-shot penalty. If you don’t take any yardage off the scorecard, that’s a penalty. You’ve added a stroke and subtracted no yardage. And at Hoylake that is basically what happens if you find a fairway bunker.

“If the course had been green, he would have struggled, as well as he was playing. I don’t see how he could have got himself round that course without penalty shots or the equivalent.”

OK, back up to date, much has been made of Woods’ decision, after playing two rounds just over a week ago at the Quicken Loans National at Congressional in the US, to not enter another event before he returns to Hoylake. On the face of it, it seems a strange strategy, especially after a long lay-off through injury.

“That he isn’t going to play competitively in the two weeks running up to the Open speaks to the fact that he doesn’t care as much as he used to,” contends Haney. “Still, you can’t win if you don’t enter. Maybe he will catch lightning in a bottle. But I really think he is using the Open to get ready for the [US] PGA at Valhalla next month. That’s a much more realistic target for him.

“I can’t believe he feels like he is ready to win the Open. If he did, he would have played at the Greenbrier this week or at the Scottish Open. But he hasn’t practised much for almost a year now. He took time off at the end of last season, played a bit, then got hurt. So he is way behind in his preparation. It says a lot about him that he spent this past week with his kids. That will make him a better person, but it won’t make him a better golfer.

“What is weird to me is that some people think he is the only guy in the world who doesn’t have to practise. He does. He has good reasons not to practise – being with his kids is a good reason. And so is injury. And rehab. They are all valid. But it still adds up to not practising.”

As for the swing we saw a few days ago at Congressional, Haney was, like many other informed observers, far from impressed.

“Tiger’s swing looked the same as it did before he left,” he declares. “Speaking as a fan, that was more than a little disappointing. I didn’t see anything different. He was still setting up for a big slice off the tee. Other people might call it a fade, but that isn’t a fade Tiger is hitting, it’s a slice. That same problem showed up in last year’s Open at Muirfield. Tiger is in big trouble any time it is windy, or if the hole he is playing bends right-to-left. And if there is a left-to-right wind on a right-to-left dogleg he really has next to no chance. He has no shot in those circumstances and so virtually no hope of hitting the fairway.

“I laughed when I heard Tiger say he was pleased with his play last week and how he had worked the ball ‘both ways’. Well, not with the driver he didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, he had the same problem when I was helping him. But he could play around it with the stinger. That was the safe shot he doesn’t have right now.

“The thing that cracked me up most though was commentators explaining his bad shots by saying he was ‘rusty’. What does that mean? Rust shows up when you hit a chip too hard or too easy. Or when you misjudge distance on a less than full shot. It’s a lack of touch and/or feel. But a mis-hit is not rust. Pulling it in the bunker is not rust.”

Oh dear. Will we ever see the “old” Tiger again? Or even a close facsimile? Sadly, it looks less and less likely.

TIGER AT THE OPEN SINCE 2006

• 2006 at Royal Liverpool: A lesson in shot-making from a golfer then at the height of his powers. Woods’ decision to use a 2-iron off the tee and let the ball run on Hoylake’s parched ground paid off handsomely. He won by five shots.

• 2007 at Carnoustie: An opening 69 left Woods sharing eighth but a second-round 74 knocked him off the leaderboard. Subsequent rounds of 69 and 70 left Woods tied for 12th, five strokes behind winner Padraig Harrington.

• 2008 at Royal Birkdale: The Southport crowds were denied their chance to see Woods, who missed out on the Championship following knee surgery.

• 2009 at Turnberry: A shorter than anticipated visit to Scotland for Woods, whose opening 71 and second-round 74 meant he missed the cut at the Open for the first (and so far only) time. Finished tied 74th at the Ayrshire course.

• 2010 at The Old Course, St Andrews: An opening 67 looked promising for Woods but two rounds of 73 and a closing 72 left him sharing 23rd place, 13 shots behind runaway winner Louis Oosthuizen.

• 2011 at Royal St George’s: No meat in the Sandwich for fans of Woods, who had to pull out because of fears he would damage his leg.

• 2012 Royal Lytham and St Annes: Tiger showed his claws again, two opening rounds of 67 and a third-round 70 keeping him in the hunt. But a last-day 73 secured a tie for third with Brandt Snedecker, four strokes behind winner Ernie Els, whose 68 was enough to overhaul long-time leader Adam Scott after the Aussie’s game – he was four strokes ahead on the 15th tee – collapsed on the final holes.

• 2013 at Muirfield: A respectable tied-sixth finish for Woods, but his final-day 74 was nowhere near enough to catch fellow Californian Phil Mickelson, who charged to victory with a 66.

 

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