If his conservative game plan at Royal Lytham & St. Annes works and he wins the British Open for his 15th major championship, four years and a month since his last one, he will — rightly — be lauded as a genius.
In the eyes of many, Woods, who already has three wins on the PGA Tour this season, will be back to where he was, or at least very close to it, before the fire hydrant.
But if it doesn’t, he will be second-guessed and the wait to resume his run at Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors will drag into another month with the knowledge that at 36, time is not really on his side.
On Friday, Woods matched his opening-round 3-under-par score of 67. He’s alone in third place, ominously perched going into the weekend.
The statisticians were quick to point out that this is the eighth time Woods has begun a major with back-to-back rounds in the 60s. The previous seven times he’s won.
But what’s lost in the numbers is that in six of those wins, he led at the midway point, the exception being the 2006 PGA Championship; even there, however, he was only one shot behind at Chicago’s Medinah Country Club.
He enters the weekend on the Lancashire coast four shots behind the surprise leader, Tennessee’s Brandt Snedeker, who’s deadly with a putter on these greens, and three behind Adam Scott, the player who now employs Woods’ estranged caddie, Steve Williams, adding spice to the narrative.
Woods arrived at 6 under employing the same fairways-at-all-costs strategy that he executed so brilliantly in winning the claret jug at Hoylake six years ago. But there’s a crucial difference between Royal Liverpool then and Lytham now.
And that is that Lytham has been softened by weeks of rain, and has been left unguarded by the ferocious winds that usually whip in off the Irish Sea.
It’s not playing like a traditional fast and firm Open links — as Hoylake did in 2006 — where approach shots need to be bounced in from short of the green, giving players an extra dimension to calculate and making it so problematic to stop balls near the hole.
Snedeker, who never made a cut in three previous tries at the Open, acknowledged that what he called the “Americanization of this golf course” has made life easier for him.
“That’s played a factor in it,” he said of his good play of the first two days. “It would be stupid to say it hasn’t.”
“I’ve never seen balls spin (on greens) at a British Open before, and it’s spinning this week.”
Scott, who turned 32 four days ago and is looking to give himself the ultimate birthday present, said the softness of the course meant he could be more aggressive.
“You can go after more pins,” he said after shooting 67 to go with an opening 64. “Like the 18th hole. I mean I flew a 9-iron right to the hole and it stops within a yard or so of where it lands. That was not really expected at the start of the week.
“So it’s probably an easier adjustment going back to regular golf than having to adjust to having some understanding of how far the ball is going to run out on a firm links course.”
Woods, though, didn’t adjust. He has hit just three drivers through two rounds, and only a few fairway woods. Instead, he fires irons off the tees and, even though he’s been very accurate — he’s tied for the lead in fairways hit — he leaves himself longer distances into the greens, making it harder to hit the ball close.
Woods is 129th in driving distance, giving up almost 50 yards to Scott, who leads the field at 312.5 yards. The strategy hurt Woods most on Friday on Lytham’s two par-5s.
While Snedeker and Scott birdied both holes — Scott taking driver and hitting both greens in two — Woods played them in 1-over par. Irons off the tees left him no choice but to lay up.
On the seventh, his mediocre approach gave him little chance for birdie, while on the 11th, he missed the fairway off the tee and in the end was made to scramble for a bogey.
He recovered from that mistake by pulling out some of that old Tiger magic. He drained a birdie putt on the 16th from outside 20 feet, then ensured he’d sleep well with the most unlikely birdie on the last, spectacularly holing out from the greenside bunker.
Not surprisingly, Woods felt “very pleased at where I’m at.”
“We’re at the halfway point and I’m right in the mix,” he said.
But what happens if the conditions remain benign and the leaders go low once again? Will he change the game plan to go after them?