It’s another major championship week and another week when Tiger Woods seems obsessed with the wrong club.
During his practice sessions at Oak Hill before the first round of the PGA Championship, Woods had his friend Steve Stricker check on his putting angles — his shoulders and his arms and how he was releasing the putter through impact. That might seem odd to most given that Woods won the WGC Bridgestone Invitational last week by a whopping seven shots, a victory that included a 9-under 61 on Friday. But when it comes to majors, Woods blames most of his failures and credits most of his successes on putting.
“Obviously I feel pretty good about winning by seven and coming here,” Woods said in his pre-PGA press conference on Tuesday. “That’s how I played at the British Open. The only difference is I made more putts last week. I hit it just as good at Muirfield and didn’t make any putts the last three days. At Firestone (Country Club) I putted well, but I hit the ball just the same.”
This is his standard mantra — I hit the ball well, but didn’t make enough putts. He said it at Pebble Beach after the 2010 U.S. Open where he finished tied for fourth, and after the 2011 and 2013 Masters tournaments where he also finished tied for fourth. He parroted a variation of the line at Kiawah Island during last year’s PGA Championship and at Merion at this year’s U.S. Open.
It has become his verbal tick, a fallback line for every failure.
What he hasn’t said, but what is blindingly obvious to anyone who has followed Woods’ career for the last 16 years, is that he isn’t driving the ball as well now as he did in his heyday. And it has been the driver more than any other club in the bag that has kept him from hoisting that 15th major championship trophy.
Any honest pro will tell you that the week-in and week-out PGA Tour events don’t put the premium on driving that you find during the majors. Certainly you can’t hit it sideways and win much, but when you are the No.1 player in the world you can miss a fair number of fairways and still scrape out some victories.
In Woods’ case, you can rank 53rd on tour in driving accuracy and still win five times. He has done it by carving 3-woods and 2-irons into the middle on some holes and swinging from the heels on others.
Firestone was a perfect example of this defensive-driving technique. Woods hit knock-down, hold-off 3-woods on the holes where he really needed to find the fairway. When he did swing away at the driver, the ball sometimes wound up in play, but sometimes he was lucky that it landed on the golf course. Even when he was shooting 61 he hit driver into the trees (the ball bounced out into the thick rough and he was able to hit it onto the green).
“Tiger really needs to experiment and find a driver that he knows he can hit in the middle,” former Ryder Cup captain and PGA Champion Paul Azinger told me over dinner a couple of weeks ago. “I think something with more loft would be a good place to start, but right now he just looks like he’s fighting to hit it in the fairway.”
Phil Mickelson moved away from the driver completely. He is carrying two 3-woods — one of which would have been deemed a 2-wood back in the days when manufacturers made such things — and he hit more fairways in the last two majors than any time in his career.
Finding the short grass is the key to winning major championships no matter how many times you’ve won on tour. This week is no different.
As Masters champion Adam Scott said of Oak Hill after his practice round on Tuesday, “The demand is there off the tee for a chance to score. The rough looks pretty long and I just don’t know with these small, circular greens whether you’re going to get good opportunities to hit it on the green out the rough too often.”
On that front Woods agreed. “It’s imperative to hit the ball in the fairways,” he said. “Because it’s going to be tough to get it up and down.”