Golf

Tiger has one last shot at a major

Image: Tiger Woods (Debby Wong/USA Today Sports)
Tiger's win at Bridgestone gives him momentum going into the PGA Championship.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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ROCHESTER, NY

On a pleasant Tuesday afternoon in upstate New York, Tiger Woods changed everything he’s ever believed about what it means to be a champion golfer.

Since he was a boy and pinned Jack Nicklaus’ record on his bedroom wall, Woods has dreamed of eclipsing the Golden Bear’s 18 majors.

Majors, as Woods reminded us Tuesday, “are the biggest events with the most pressure, the best fields on the most difficult golf courses.”

Rest assured, his boyhood dreams were never about beating Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour wins -- a mark Woods is just three victories shy of after blitzing the field at last week’s Bridgestone Invitational.

It’s always been about majors for Tiger, which is fine as long as you’re winning them.

But it’s been more than five years since Woods last won one; it didn’t take Stanley Kubrick this long to make a movie.

The oh-for-17 major-less streak — by a touchdown the longest drought of his career — has, it seems, turned Woods into something of a shell man, because he’s decided to change the location of the pea right before our eyes.

On countless occasions, Woods has said that a great year requires that he win at least one major.
But on the eve of his last chance to capture that elusive 15th major, this week’s PGA Championship at venerable Oak Hill, the great Tiger Woods downsized.

“I think winning one major championship automatically means you had a great year,” he said.
“Even if you miss the cut in every tournament you play in, you win one, you're part of history.

“This year, for me, I think it's been a great year so far for me, winning five times, and you look at the quality of tournaments I've won, a Players and two World Golf Championships in there, that's pretty good.”

And that’s what it is: pretty good.

But, Tiger, it’s not great, because if it were great …

A journalist picked up on the inconsistency and asked Woods if he’d “adjusted his standards?”

“No,” a clearly unimpressed Woods responded.

Then would it be, without a major, still a great year?

“Yeah.”

Some may find it unfair to judge Woods so harshly.

Five wins, after all, is a great career for a lot of the men teeing it up this week.

Hunter Mahan only has five PGA Tour wins. So does Luke Donald, who still managed to reach No. 1 in the world.

But these aren’t the judgments of others.

It was Tiger, long ago, who decided how his greatness would be defined.

And it’s too late now to change that definition.

So no matter how many more times he wins at Torrey Pines, or Bay Hill or Firestone Country Club, the only question that matters when it comes to his legacy is this: How many majors did you win?

That’s not to say he doesn’t deserve to be lauded — no one has done what he did from 1996 to ’09 — but it is to say that unless Woods finds the champion he used to be on Sundays at majors, then Nicklaus, by Tiger’s own definition, will remain the greatest of all time.

Ever since Woods’ deconstruction by scandal in 2009, I’ve always thought the toughest major for him to win wouldn’t be 18, or 19 to go ahead of Jack, but number 15.

“It kind of seems that way,” Woods conceded on Tuesday.

PGA TOUR WIN LEADERS

Collecting trophies is a habit of Tiger Woods.

“I've had, certainly, my share of chances to win. I've had my opportunities there on the back nine on those probably half of those Sundays for the last five years where I've had a chance, and just haven't won it.

“But the key is to keep giving myself chances, and eventually I'll start getting them.”

Woods gave himself a chance at Muirfield last month but — as he has over the past two years — faded on the weekend.

He blamed a faulty putter — and that was true, given he took 66 putts on the weekend — but maybe there’s something more at play.

Steve Williams, Woods’ estranged caddie, watched him at close range in the final round at the British Open and came away thinking that while his overall game was good, Woods was missing his “old aggressiveness.”

It’s an astute observation because the more time has passed without a major won, the more careful Woods has grown, especially on weekends.

It’s as if he playing not to lose one rather than trying to win one.

But Woods, as is his wont, doesn’t see it that way.

“I think it's all dependent on the conditions,” he said Tuesday of Williams’ observation.

“(At Muirfield) the penalty for being overly aggressive and hitting the ball in the wrong spots was very severe.

“Certain golf courses allow you to be more aggressive than others. Last week (at the Bridgestone Invitational) I was a little more aggressive because the conditions were softer.

“At Muirfield, when you're hitting five irons that are going 285 (yards), it's kind of hard to be superly aggressive.”

What, then, of Oak Hill?

Woods likes the course because he likes old, tree-lined classic courses that are “right there in front of you.”

But the signs, at first glance, aren’t so good for him. Woods finished tied for 39th when the PGA Championship was last here, in 2003; it was his second-lowest finish in the year’s final major behind only the cut he missed two years ago.

The weakest part of his game then, as it is now, is his driver and no one can win from Oak Hill’s penal rough.

It’s also a par 70 — depriving Woods of two par fives — and he has more missed cuts (three) than wins (two) in majors on courses where par is 70.

But there’s something to be said for confidence; Woods has gone on to win the PGA once after winning the week before.

And, at least on this day, he’s got that old glint in his eye.

“Do I feel good? Well, obviously I feel pretty good about winning by seven and coming here,” he said.

And if he’s still feeling good on Sunday evening, then it will really be a great year.

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus

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