By now, Tiger Woods should have had a chance to defend his Masters title. By now, there should be an answer for his rabid fans about just how much time they should devote to cheering him on in the U.S. Open.
But in a year where answers are hard to come from anywhere, there isn’t a simple one about his chances of winning a fourth Open championship.
It’s so complicated that even Woods seems to be having problems figuring it out.
“This year I really haven’t putted as well as I wanted to, and the times I did make a few swing mistakes, I missed it in the wrong spots,’’ Woods said Tuesday. ”Consequently, I just didn’t have the right looks at it. I’ve compounded mistakes here and there that ended up not making me able to make pars or a birdie run, and consequently I haven’t put myself in contention to win events.’’
Don’t feel bad if that seemed difficult to follow. With Woods we’ve been guessing at things for years.
Is his back OK? Is he rusty from not playing enough? How about the putter?
And add this one into the mix for this tournament: At the age of 44 will he be able to match players two decades younger when it comes to hacking out of the rough and steadying himself on the 6-footers for par?
We’ll know soon enough, with Woods teeing off early Thursday at Winged Foot in a pairing that includes two players who, unlike Woods, have a lot more professional golf in their future than they do in their past. One of them, newly crowned PGA champion Collin Morikawa, wasn’t even born when Woods won his first PGA tournament in 1996, while Justin Thomas, until last month, was officially the best player in golf.
Oddsmakers don’t exactly fancy his chances, making Woods a 35-1 shot to edge closer to the biggest record he doesn’t hold in golf — the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. Woods himself doesn’t sound terribly confident, even if he’s not quite ready yet to take his place as an elder statesman of golf.
“I think it gets harder to win as we all age,’’ he said.
Compounding the issue for Woods this week isn’t necessarily the length of Winged Foot, which stretches nearly 7,500 yards with a par of 70. He’s plenty long to still be competitive with players like Thomas and Morikawa, even if they will likely be outdriving him in the opening rounds.
It’s what happens when he can’t find the fairway and needs to scramble that will be the toughest part. By all accounts, the rough at Winged Foot is brutal, which means Woods will need to overcome mistakes off the tee with the kind of short game that has won him 15 majors.
Unfortunately, the putts under 10 feet that used to be automatic for Woods are automatic no longer. It doesn’t help that he missed the FedEx playoffs and hasn’t played competitively in three weeks.
There’s also the fact that in six rounds in two major championships at Winged Foot, Woods is a combined 18-over-par. That includes the 2006 Open at Winged Foot, where Woods shot 76-76 and missed the cut.
Still, as his magical win at the Masters last year reminded everyone, it would be a mistake to sell him short.
“When I won the Masters last year I was not feeling particularly well prior to that,’’ Woods said. ”My neck was bothering me. I didn’t play in Bay Hill. For some reason I felt physically better and my training sessions felt good. I changed shafts in my driver right before the event, and I was able to start turning the ball over. Then all of a sudden I put myself in contention and I wasn’t really — I wasn’t leading but I was near the lead, and each day I progressively got a little bit better, and come Sunday, I put all the pieces together.’’
Could that happen again at Winged Foot, a course that doesn’t have the wide fairways of Augusta National and is lined with deep rough? A course that Woods doesn’t know nearly as well and hasn’t had previous success?
Woods isn’t making predictions, and anyone else is simply guessing. Things tend to happen in golf that can’t be predicted, as evidenced by Morikawa’s win at the PGA Championship last month in his first major as a professional.
One thing is clear: Time is running out on Woods if he is to add four more major titles to break the record he wants the most. And snagging one during a pandemic would be a perfect springboard heading into the Masters in November, where he will be the defending champion.
Meanwhile, don’t forget. He is Tiger Woods.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http:twitter.com/timdahlberg