Tiger Woods is back to winning golf tournaments at an unrivaled rate on the PGA Tour. Yet at this stage of his storied career, success is measured in only one way: winning major championships.
It’s something the world’s No. 1 hasn't done in more than five years, a drought that has Tiger stuck on 14 majors. That needs to come to an end in the very near future if his his career-defining quest to pass Jack Nicklaus as the all-time majors winner is going to become a reality.
In fact, given his current form, his rediscovered confidence and the venues that Tiger will have the opportunities to play over the next seven to 11 majors, it's critical that Woods takes advantage of the next several years if he's going to pass the Golden Bear's 18 major titles.
It's not crucial that Woods gets a major win this year, but he does have good opportunities both at Merion this week in the U.S. Open and at Muirfield in next month's Open Championship to win his first major since his U.S. Open victory in 2008.
A major breakthrough this summer would certainly ease the pressure on Woods. He will begin a significant two-year stretch of major championship starts that might very well tell the Tiger tale when it's all said and done.
Consider what awaits in 2014. Woods has won on three of the four courses hosting majors next year—Augusta National, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla—and has twice been in the top 10 at Pinehurst No. 2, which plays host to the 2014 U.S. Open.
In 2015, he gets another shot at St. Andrews, at which he has twice won, in addition to the annual test at the Masters. There are more friendly sites in 2016 and 2017, including Baltusrol and Quail Hollow Club, but Woods has a chance beginning this week at Merion to essentially make victories in 2016 and 2017 icing on the cake.
Bottom line: Tiger is the ultimate "horse for course" golfer.
Looking at what sits just ahead and a bit down the road, it's hard to argue that the opportunities for Woods to get back to winning majors aren't significant. Of course, Woods needs to keep his personal life out of headlines and his body healthy, but for the sake of this argument, we are assuming that happens.
If he indeed does that, then winning at least five more majors is certainly doable if Woods just takes advantage of the opportunities he has on courses he knows he can play well.
The path he will take on that journey is laid out below.
The Masters—Augusta National Golf Club
Woods owns four Masters titles but hasn't won at Augusta National since 2005, a surprising fact considering how tailor-made the course is to his skills. If not for a now-infamous bad drop, Woods might have won the 2013 Masters, but he was forced to settle for a tie for fourth.
If Tiger plans to capture five majors in the next several years, he needs to win at Augusta at least once, maybe twice if he wants to ease the pressure even more.
There’s no question that Tiger still has the length and the short game to be a significant threat at Augusta for years to come. If he enters the 2014 edition with at least a 15th major already in the bank, we see him adding a record-tying fifth green jacket next year.
Given his past success at Augusta and how well he played there this year, we’re willing to allow a second victory in the following three years. That means Tiger will need to win just three other times in the other majors to pass Jack.
The U.S. Open
2013: Merion Golf Club; 2014: Pinehurst Golf Club; 2015: Chambers Bay; 2016: Oakmont Country Club; 2017: Erin Hills
Tiger has to be licking his chops at his Open opportunities over the next five years.
Merion is a thinking man’s course where placement and patience is critical, two things Woods clearly understands. He’ll have to putt better than he did at Muirfield Village, but if conditions allow him to keep the driver in the bag more often than not, his chances to win are solid.
As for Pinehurst, Woods has twice played well at the North Carolina gem and has the short game to deal with the challenging green complexes. In the famous 1999 event, he finished third behind champion Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson. In 2005, he placed second behind surprise winner Michael Campbell.
Oakmont Country Club was kind to Woods the last time it hosted a U.S. Open in 2007. With his game in top form, Woods finished in a tie for third, just a stroke shy of forcing a playoff with Angel Cabrera. Oakmont was fierce that year and likely will be again, meaning the elite will likely rise to the top.
Getting at least one title at either Merion this week or Pinehurst next year is critical.
Woods will be seeing Chambers Bay for the first time in a competitive tournament. He will have a great chance to take the title at Oakmont, leaving the wild card Erin Hills, another first-time U.S. Open venue, as an unknown opportunity but by no means critical.
Bottom line: Woods is poised to win two more U.S. Open titles before the age of 42, giving him five in his career.
The Open Championship
2013: Muirfield; 2014: Royal Liverpool; 2015: The Old Course, St. Andrews; 2016: Royal Troon; 2017: TBD
Just as with the U.S. Open, the British Open provides some strong opportunities for Woods to add to his current total of three Claret Jugs. In fact, the two courses where Woods captured those three Open Championships—Royal Liverpool and St. Andrews—will welcome Woods twice in the next three years.
The ability to consistently hit three- and five-woods off the tee at most British Open venues removes much of the risk of finding trouble off the tee while still getting the roll on the ground he needs for his approach shots. Woods tends to dominate the par-fives at those traditional venues, allowing him to play conservatively and pick his birdie opportunities on the other holes.
For its part, Muirfield provided a bittersweet experience for Woods.
He played three rounds under par there in the 2002 Open, including a final-round six-under 65. His efforts to win the tournament were done in by a third-round 81 in some of the worst weather conditions in recent British Open memory.
It will likely be an emotional return to Royal Liverpool next year. It’s the site at which Woods claimed his first major championship following the death of his father in 2006. Typically speaking, when Woods has such positive memories of a particular course, he plays well there upon his return. Expect the same next year.
St. Andrews belongs to Tiger.
He has won there twice—in 2000 and 2005—and can simply overwhelm the layout with his length and course management. If Tiger is healthy and in current form come 2015, he will win for the third time at this historic venue.
While the venue for the 2017 Open Championship has not yet been announced, Royal Troon, the 2016 host, is another friendly site for Tiger, who finished in a tie for ninth there in 2004.
I’m not sure this lineup of British Open venues would be any different had Tiger picked them himself. If he doesn't win at least twice overseas in the next four years, he will have missed a significant opportunity to not only pass Nicklaus but also to do so easily.
The PGA Championship
2013: Oak Hill Country Club; 2014: Valhalla Golf Club; 2015: Whistling Straits; 2016: Baltusrol; 2017: Quail Hollow Club
With all due respect to the fantastic Oak Hill Country Club, I'm betting Tiger simply can't wait to get back to Valhalla Golf Club in 2014. Completing perhaps the most promising single season of major championship venues, Valhalla is the home of one of Woods' most memorable victories. That came in a thrilling three-hole playoff victory over Bob May in 2000.
The scenic and challenging layout also gives Woods perhaps his best opportunity to add to his four PGA Championships in the next five years. Oak Hill was the site of a horrible 12-over finish in the 2003 event won by Shaun Micheel.
In two previous efforts at Whistling Straits, host of the 2015 PGA Championship, Tiger couldn't manage a top-20 finish. He was never really in the mix at either of the events, played in 2004 and 2010.
If Valhalla is opportunity No. 1 for Woods, then 2016 host Baltusrol is a very close second. Although Phil Mickelson owned the week there in the 2005 PGA Championship, Woods finished just two shots back in a tie for fourth with Davis Love III.
Woods has claimed a PGA Tour victory at Quail Hollow, but he's also had his struggles and didn't play there this year. Changes will be made to prepare the course for a major championship, so past performance might be the best judge for what Woods will do in 2017.
With the next 19 majors clearly laid out and the great potential that exists considering his history on many of those courses, it's clear that a healthy, confident Woods can certainly pass Nicklaus in the near future if he just repeats past success at his favorite venues.
What he does in the all-important 2014 majors that remain will decide just how easy that mission is or whether it's going to continue to be the struggle it has been for the past five years.
Either way, when we close the book on 2017, Woods will have completed the most important period of golf in his quest to be the greatest the sport has ever seen.
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