He has not won a Major for six years. He has not played either of the two Majors this year. He did not play for 16 weeks from mid-March to last week, and on his return, he missed the cut. Yet his press conference attracted the largest gathering at the 143rd Open Championships in Hoylake, UK, where he won in 2006, the third of this three British Open titles and the 11th Major of his amazing career.
When Tiger Woods was asked what would be an acceptable finish for him at this week’s Open, his reply was laconic and instantaneous: “First.” Would anything less be unacceptable, persisted the reporter, and the World No. 7 re-affirmed, “That is always the case, yes.”
But Woods, more than anyone else — maybe not even the doctors, who try to piece him back together every now and then — knows himself better.
“I have been in circumstances like this before,” he later added. “If you remember 2008, I had knee surgery right after the Masters. I teed it up to the US Open and won. I didn’t play more than nine holes and the Sunday before the US Open, I didn’t break 50 for those nine holes, and still was able to win it in a play-off, with an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury and a broken leg.
“I have proven I can do it, it’s just a matter of putting my game and giving myself the best chances this week to put the ball in the correct spots, to be aggressive when I can, and obviously to hole putts. That’s a recipe you find for every Major championship, but I have just got to do it this week.”
The last time the Open was held at Hoylake (2006), it was 39 years. Woods used the driver just once on a dry layout at Royal Liverpool, which became baked with each passing day. He opened with a 67 and on the final day, he ran out a winner by two shots over Chris DiMarco, with Ernie Els third.
Talking of the time since 2006, when he won the last of his three Opens, and the 11th Major of his career, Woods said, “Well, it’s eight years on. My life has certainly changed a lot since then. That was a very emotional week (It was his first Major after he lost his dad). As you all know, I pressed pretty hard at Augusta (he finished third at the Masters) that year, trying to win it, because it was the last time my dad was ever going to see me play a Major championship. And then I didn’t play well at the (US) Open. Missed the cut there miserably. And then came here and just felt at peace. I really, really played well. On Sunday, I really felt calm out there. It was surreal at the time. I have had a few moments like that in Majors where I have felt that way on a Sunday. And that was certainly one of them.” He stopped and added, “It meant a lot to me in my life at the time.”
In 2006, Woods lost his dad, but he overcame that personal loss. He kept his emotions in check and played some of the best golf of his life. The same year, after finishing third at Augusta, he missed the cut at the US Open and then won back-to-back Majors for the last time in his career, taking the Open and the PGA Championship.
In 2007, he was second at Augusta and US Open and won the PGA again, reaching 13 Majors. In 2008, he was again second at the Masters, but won the US Open virtually on one leg, beating Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines by a stroke in the first hole of a sudden death after an 18-hole play-off. That also meant he had won each of the four Majors at least three times.
He was now only four behind Jack Nicklaus’ 18 and it seemed well within his grasp. But the wrecked knee took a toll and he missed the Open and the PGA in 2008.
He recalled the peace and serenity he felt in 2006. On asked why he felt so, then, he replied candidly, “If I knew, I would do it all the time. But it just happens. Maybe because I was in control of my game. The times I have had it I have really played well. Everything was working. I think that in 1997 at Augusta I had it going pretty good. Then 2000 at both the US Open and the Open Championship, I had it going pretty good, as well. And that year in 2006 was the same. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was every day, but certainly on Sunday I really felt that my dad was with me on that one round. I said it back then in 2006 that it was like having my 15th club. I felt that type of peace when I was out there.”
It has been six years and exactly 24 Majors since he won the last one at the US Open. “I think it gets harder every year, just because the fields get deeper. More guys with a chance to win,” he added. “What did we have, 16 or 17 straight first-time winners and more Major championship winners throughout that stretch? It’s just getting deeper. It’s getting harder to win. The margin is so much smaller. It’s only going to continue to be the case.”
In 2009, right at the end of the year, the personal crisis hit his career. A break-up in marriage and the sex scandal hit headlines more often than his golf. Of the 24 Majors since the US Open, Tiger has missed six, two each in 2008, 2011 and 2014. But he has also finished sixth or better in nine of the 18 he has played.
So, is he close to overcoming his personal and physical problems? Speaking of the difference between a bad knee earlier on and a bad back recently, he said, “When my knee was bad, I could still do things and I could still swing a club. Yeah, it was going to hurt a lot, but I actually could do it. With this back, it just wasn’t the case. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Once I went through the procedure and I was just sitting there in the recovery room and I just didn’t have any of that pain anymore, which was, as you said, it was a lot of relief. It was a matter of time before I could get strong. Once I started getting stronger, more stable, I could work on my explosiveness, and start getting my speed back. Each and every week I have gotten stronger and faster. Probably not quite at the level that I think I can be at as far as my explosion through the golf ball, but I’m pretty darn close.”