Tiger Woods returns to the Muirfield Golf Links with a chance to make a statement. The course that humbled the sport's biggest star 11 years ago provides him with a golden opportunity to silence the doubters en route to major triumph No. 15.
By now, golf fans know the story. The 2002 Open Championship took place on the storied course in Scotland. In the third round, Woods posted an 81 and watched his dreams of capturing the calendar Grand Slam slip away.
Tiger Woods' 81 in Rd.3 of the 2002 British Open at Muirfield remains his worst score ever recorded as a professional.— PGA Tour Stats (@statsPGA) July 16, 2013
Remember, that meltdown happened at the height of Woods' powers. He had won six of the previous nine majors, including two straight heading to Muirfield. To see him lose his way around a course was a stunning turn of events.
That's no longer the case. He captured major No. 14 at the U.S. Open in 2008 and remains stuck on that number. The dominance he put on display a decade ago has only been seen in flashes over the past handful of years, making him appear more like a mere mortal.
Expectations for his latest trip to Muirfield are mixed, which isn't a surprise. He arrives after missing an extended period of time with an elbow injury. He practiced and reported no issues, according to Bob Harig of ESPN:
Woods reported that his "elbow feels good. It's one of the good things of taking the time off to let it heal and get the treatment and therapy on it. The main reason was that coming over here the ground is going to be hard, obviously. And I'm going to need that elbow to be good. I needed to have this thing set and healed. And everything is good to go."
But questions will linger until he hits a shot out of the thick rough. Every setback, whether it involves his health or his game, is fuel for the doubters. It's a group that will likely continue to grow with each passing major Woods doesn't win.
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One group that hasn't lost faith in Woods is the oddsmakers. He's the favorite at 8-1, according to Bovada, with Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson the next options on the board at 16-1. So, despite his injury issues and lack of recent success at majors, he remains a sizable favorite.
The reason is simple.
When Woods finds top form, he's still the best player in the world, and it really isn't even close. He's made nine PGA Tour starts this season and won four times. The only other player to win twice is Matt Kuchar, and he's played six more tournaments.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about those four victories was how easy he made them look. His best score in the final round of a win this season is 70. He's pulling away from the field early and cruising to the finish line.
Now, he just needs to find a way to carry that type of play over to the majors. It shouldn't surprise anybody if it happens at Muirfield this weekend.
Unfortunately for Woods, no other result will silence the doubters. He could finish a very strong second to Rose, Mickelson or Graeme McDowell and it wouldn't be enough. It's win or bust, a standard set during his prime that continues to follow him.
That said, a win this week would change things. The major drought would be over. He'd remain ranked No. 1 in the world, and any question marks about coming up on the big stage fade away. All it takes is a victory on a course that's got the better of him before.
Otherwise, the pressure will continue to mount on Woods' shoulders, as if there wasn't enough already.