Sean Martin/PGA TOUR, 15 May 2019: History could be on Tiger Woods’ side this week.
The last time the PGA Championship was played in May, the winner was the same man who won the Masters a month earlier. That was Sam Snead, who won both events in 1949. You may have heard that Woods won this year’s Masters.
Now he’s trying to win the year’s first two majors for just the second time in his career. He accomplished the feat in 2002 when Augusta National and Bethpage Black were the venues.
Woods doesn’t need the assistance of omens, though. He’s no longer a man on the comeback trail. He’s once again one of the best players on the planet. Period.
He’s been victorious in two of his last seven starts and finished no worse than sixth in the past three major championships. The question is no longer “if” but “how many?” This week, he can tie Snead’s record for most PGA TOUR victories (82). And the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors is debate fodder once again.
The conversation continues this week after Woods’ lengthy post-Masters layoff. Despite speculation to the contrary, Woods said he was physically able to play two weeks ago at the Wells Fargo Championship. He just needed more time to relax and relish in a victory that was once unthinkable.
“I wasn’t ready yet to start the grind of practising and preparing,” said Woods, who ranks 18th in the FedExCup. “I was feeling good in the gym, but I wasn’t mentally prepared to log in the hours.”
Woods said he feels “rested and ready” this week. If he is to win his 16th major this week, though, he’ll have to do it with a different game than the powerful one he used to win the 2002 U.S. Open on this brawny Long Island muni.
Woods dominated with distance back then. He was the only player to finish under par on a 7,214-yard course that was the longest U.S. Open venue in history. He locked up the title by reaching the par-5 13th in two with a 2-iron from 263 yards. No one else in the field possessed that shot.
Woods ranked seventh in both driving distance and driving accuracy that week. He hit 73% of the fairways on a week while the field averaged 59%. He hit 53 greens in regulation, five more than anyone else in the field. He had a 74% success rate with his irons on a week when the field barely hit more than half the greens.
Back then, Woods’ biggest differentiator may have been his ability to gouge balls out of the rough and onto the green. Woods had enough speed to dig shots out of even the thickest rough while other players were pitching out. It’s why he was dominant at Firestone and Torrey Pines, two courses that perennially have the toughest fairways to hit.
The name may be different, but this week’s setup is expected to be reminiscent of the previous major championships held here. Rain played a role in both U.S. Opens here, as it already has this week. Defending champion Brooks Koepka expected a winning score around even par. The rough is thick and wet. Words like and “brutish” are appropriate descriptors for Bethpage Black, the only course that greets players with a warning sign.
“In order to win this one, driving is going to be at the forefront,” Woods said. He’ll need to hit fairways to take advantage of his strongest asset.
Iron play is still Woods’ forte. He leads the TOUR in greens in regulation and ranks 14th in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green. But at 43 years old and with a fused back, the speed isn’t quite the same.
He has to play the role of a wily veteran, relying on his smarts more than his speed. That’s what he did at Augusta National, which he used to decimate with his drives. He won this year’s Masters while ranking 44th (out of 65 players) in driving distance. The pivotal moment came on No. 12 when he played the safe shot while the other contenders crumbled around him.
Woods sees similarities between himself and Peyton Manning, who won a Super Bowl after neck surgery. Or a pitcher who has to rely on command after their fastball has lost a couple of mph.
“Just because someone doesn’t have the strength to do something, he’s going to figure out a different way,” Woods said. “I don’t have a fastball. (Manning) couldn’t zip the ball into the tight little windows. He had to anticipate more. He has to do more work in the film room. I had to do more work on managing my game, my body, understanding it, what I can and cannot do.”
That’s why the driver may be his most important club this week. Hitting to Bethpage Black’s elevated greens from the rough will be a tall task for everyone, especially those who aren’t among the longest hitters. Woods, who wowed with some eye-popping swing speeds last season, is 52nd in driving distance this week (299.6 yards).
“He seems to have lost a bit of ball speed this year, which I think is a conscious decision to take some pressure off his back,” said Padraig Harrington. “He realizes if you’re still leading greens in regulation, … he doesn’t need that ball speed.”
Harrington was impressed with how Woods played the final holes at Augusta National. After a couple unsuccessful attempts to hit a draw off the tee, Harrington saw a man who stopped trying to play the “proper” shot and accrue style points.
“He just played to win,” Harrington said. “He hit a fade off the 14th, he hit a fade off the 15th, where you’re trying for a bit of distance. He was just getting the job done and winning the tournament.”