Tiger Woods wasted no time with his indoctrination to links golf. It was hardly subtle, showing up in 1995 as a 19-year-old amateur to Carnoustie, one of the hardest courses in the world.
The occasion was the Scottish Open, where Woods tied for 47th, shooting a final-round 78, the battering worth the lessons learned. A week later at St. Andrews, he played The Open (his first) on the Old Course, where he tied for 66th (along with Gary Player, who was then 59).
Woods would go on to win the Claret Jug three times — twice at St. Andrews and most recently in 2006 at Royal Liverpool.
Carnoustie? It has caused its share of fits to all in the two times Woods has played The Open there, and Woods was not exempt. He tied for seventh in 1999 and for 12th in 2007. He was not a final-round contender at either tournament.
Having tied for fourth at the Quicken Loans National on Sunday, Woods now has his sights set on the third major championship of the year.
“Basically, just trying to get efficient hitting the golf ball both ways and then getting comfortable hitting the ball down,” Woods said of what he has to do to prepare. “Carnoustie is an unbelievable driving golf course. You have to drive the ball well there, but also not your traditional in-out [links] golf course. It’s a lot of different angles, so a lot of different crosswinds. I have to be able to maneuver the golf ball both ways there efficiently. You just have to hit the golf ball well there.”
Woods will be making his first appearance at The Open since 2015, when he missed the cut at St. Andrews. In his two previous major championship appearances this year, he did not fare well. He was never a factor at the Masters, where he tied for 32nd. At the U.S. Open, Woods birdied his final two holes and still missed the cut by two shots.
How will he fare at Carnoustie? The Open has long been viewed as his best chance for a major victory at this stage of his career. It is typically a place where age does not discriminate as much as it does at the other major venues: For example, the winners from 2011 to 2013 (Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson) were all in their 40s. Zach Johnson was 39 when he won in 2015; Henrik Stenson was 40 when he won in 2016. Go back to 2009, when 59-year-old Tom Watson lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink at Turnberry.
And as Woods’ former coach Hank Haney said: “At The Open, you have a better opportunity to play your foul balls.”
Woods clearly views those examples as evidence that he can do it too. But as much as the golf ball doesn’t know how old you are — or how many back surgeries you have endured — it still has to find the hole in fewer strokes than everyone else. And Woods has had difficulty in that regard, despite considerable promise.
Here is a look at how his game shapes up heading into Carnoustie.
This has been the big subject of late. Woods made the decision at the Quicken Loans National to put his trusted Scotty Cameron on the shelf in favor of a TaylorMade mallet-like putter that he says feels better to him at the moment. He all but confirmed he’ll be using it at The Open. He said the grooves on the face help get the ball moving a bit faster, a common problem for him on slower greens.
At TPC Potomac during the Quicken Loans National, the results were mixed. He was seventh in the field in strokes gained putting, a nice improvement from his struggles of late. That was mostly due to him making a good number of longer-range putts, an important factor that had gone missing. But he had some head-scratching misses as well, making just 9 of 16 putts from 4 to 8 feet and missing 13 for the week inside of 10 feet.
Of course, few are going to make them all, but misses from short range are rally killers, not to mention the difference in a few places on the scoreboard.
“I’ve hit the ball well in this stretch. I just haven’t made anything,” he said. “And finally I’m starting to hit some putts. I’m starting to make those putts you’re supposed to make from 10, 15 feet, but I’m also making some from outside of 20. I haven’t done that for the better part of two months. It was nice to have over 100 feet of [made] putts twice [during Quicken Loans week]. That’s a positive sign.”
This, for the most part, has been the strength of his game. Woods hit 53 of 72 greens last week, never fewer than 13 in any round. He is fourth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained approach to the green and sixth in strokes gained tee to green. The latter stat is interesting given that he is making up for relatively poor driving (113th in strokes gained off the tee) to achieve that mark. He also ranks 29th in proximity to the hole with an average of 35 feet.
Then there are a few stats that skew the other way. He is hitting just 66 percent of his greens in regulation. In approaches from 100 to 125 yards, he ranks 174th on the tour, averaging 38 feet from the hole in an area where the best scoring occurs. Statistically, Woods is better from farther away than he is close in.
Continuing his strong iron play is quite obviously imperative.
Woods ranks 113th in strokes gained off the tee. In many ways, he is having success despite poor driving, at least in terms of hitting fairways. He ranks 178th on the tour in driving accuracy and is hitting just 54 percent of his fairways.
As Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee noted last week, Woods seems to have trouble with tee shots that require a draw. He prides himself on hitting the ball both ways but has struggled with this aspect of his game at times.
And simply hitting irons is not always the answer. At the short par-4 13th hole last week at TPC Potomac, Woods missed the fairway with an iron off the tee on both Saturday and Sunday. He bogeyed the hole on Saturday, a hole that is considered a great birdie chance.
Good driving is always going to be a hit-or-miss aspect for Woods. Carnoustie is long: 7,400 yards and par-71. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of drivers. What it does mean is accuracy will undoubtedly be important, especially if the rough is thick, as is expected to be the case.
“It’s been warm over there, and so hence the grass will probably grow,” Woods said. “And that’s one of the neat things about playing The Open Championship; they don’t really care what par is, they just let whatever Mother Nature has. If it’s in store for wet Open, it is; if it’s dry, it’s dry; they don’t try and manufacture an Open.”
No, they don’t. But nobody expects Carnoustie to be easy. It never is, and Woods knows from personal experience.
Perhaps he’ll keep this good bit of karma in the back of his head: At each of the last two Opens at Carnoustie, in 1999 and 2007, Woods failed to win and left Scotland frustrated by his inability to get in the mix.
Then a few weeks later, he went on to win the PGA Championship, in 1999 at Medinah — his second major championship — and in 2007 at Southern Hills — his 13th.
In the case, maybe Woods already has his eye on Bellerive, the site of this year’s PGA Championship in St. Louis.