Tiger Woods was supposedly one of the favorites heading into the 2013 U.S. Open.
Merion was meant to be Woods’ kind of course—a shorter course where he could play small ball and tactically take apart this classical American gem in a manner similar to what he did at The Players Championship just a month ago.
As Woods began to struggle, and then struggle some more, people were actually shocked. “What’s wrong with Tiger?” they asked.
Merion may have been shorter than most recent U.S. Open venues, but it didn’t play short, and it was still a very difficult golf course. And if you had been following Woods’ career closely, you would have already known that his days of winning U.S. Opens and PGA Championships are more than likely over.
The key to Woods breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 19 career major championships will be the Masters and the Open Championship.
It’s of course possible for Woods to catch lightening in a bottle and have an outstanding ball-striking week at just the right time and pick off another U.S. Open or PGA Championship, but he is less likely to win either of these events than at any other point in his career.
Woods needs five more majors to break Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record, and to get there, at least four of those five will most likely have to come from the Maters and the Open Championship.
Because Woods no longer has the game to excel at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.
It's OK, you can breathe again after reading that last sentence. The world is not coming to an end. We are not going back to persimmon clubs and feathery golf balls. The Golf Channel has not cancelled all programming. It’s all good. We simply have a case of an aging golfer who no longer has the game to contend at these long and grueling U.S. Open and PGA Championship venues.
Since the early 2000s, Woods has been one of the few players in professional golf to have actually gotten shorter off of the tee while pretty much keeping the same level of accuracy—or inaccuracy, in the case of Woods.
So, while U.S. Open courses have, in some cases, increased by up to 500 yards over the past decade, Woods' driving distance has decreased by nearly four yards between 2000 and 2013.
Woods’ injury report also reads more like that of an NFL lineman than a professional golfer.
If it’s not a knee thing, it’s an ankle thing or a neck thing or an Achilles thing or a back thing or an elbow thing—not to mention the mental thing he has been fighting through since striking that fire hydrant back in 2009.
Heck, Woods’ injury report stretches from head to toe.
So, while 10-12 years ago Woods used to be able to muscle short irons out of incredibly thick U.S. Open rough, he is no longer physically able to do so. Additionally, 10-12 years ago, Woods was trying to muscle 9-irons out of dense U.S. Open rough on par-fours, while today he’s trying to muscle 4-irons or 5-irons out of the U.S. Open rough.
In recent years, the PGA Championship has also started to take on an identity similar to that of the U.S. Open.
Tired of being considered golf’s “other major,” the PGA of America now challenges the best golfers in the world on 7,600-yard courses with thick rough and lightning fast greens.
The PGA of America has even been selecting a number of former U.S. Open venues for their championships, such as Oak Hill, Hazeltine, Baltusrol and Oakland Hills.
This is not a good sign for Woods.
Sure, Woods can go out and completely dominate events such as the Farmers Insurance Open and the Arnold Palmer Invitational—it’s bombs away, and if you happen to miss the fairway, it’s no big deal because the rough is cut so low that it could actually pass as fairway at most municipal tracks.
But at 37 years old, with an injury report stretching the length of Merion’s 18th hole and with less power off the tee than he had 10 years ago (despite huge advancements in equipment and golf ball technology), Woods is no longer long enough, accurate enough or strong enough to truly be considered a favorite at the U.S. Open or PGA Championship.
If you are one of those people who believe Woods will easily break Nicklaus’ record, you are probably basing this belief on numbers such as Woods needing to win just five of his next 34 majors between now and his 45th birthday to break Nicklaus’ record.
But what if those numbers were cut in half?
Based on the current state of Woods’ game, combined with the modern U.S. Open and PGA Championship venues, you can more or less take two majors off of the table each year.
So, that means Woods will play in 17 other majors (the Masters and Open Championship combined) before his 45th birthday, and he will need to win nearly 30 percent of those to break Nicklaus’ record.
Woods has, of course, gone on streaks where he has won 30 percent or more of the majors he attended. But he was hitting the ball longer than anyone else at the time, he wasn’t 37 years old, and he wasn’t walking around with a body that has suffered more damage than most NFL linemen.
Woods’ quest to break Nicklaus’ record was always going to be difficult. But while earlier in his career Woods was looking at a wide-open four-lane freeway with a full tank of gas, he is now driving on a crowded two-lane highway with worn tires, a quarter tank of gas and a lot of other cars very capable of driving right on past him.
Woods still has time to catch Nicklaus. After all, he is 37 and not 47. But, the road to 19 has become a lot more difficult than many people tend to believe.