It’s been more than five years since the No. 1 golfer in the world last secured a major tournament victory. Despite entering the British Open as the odds-on favorite to end that drought, the task won’t be easy.
Tiger Woods’ recent failures have been well documented. While Woods has already won four tournaments this year (including the Players Championship), the 37-year-old has come up well short in major tournament play, finishing tied for fourth at the Masters and flailing at the U.S. Open en route to a 32nd-place finish.
A big story from that event was Woods’ apparent elbow injury that left him grimacing in pain on several occasions throughout the weekend.
According to Paul Newberry of The Washington Times, Woods’ elbow is “good to go,” however, and the three-time British Open winner’s confidence is still very much intact.
Woods may claim to be as confident as ever, but his recent performance in majors should suggest otherwise. The British Open is just another tournament, but it’s really not.
At this point, the only thing Woods has left to do is chase down Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major tournament wins. The longer he goes without adding to his total, the more pressure is going to mount.
That pressure may have exhibited itself at the U.S. Open. While no one was able to conquer Merion’s tight fairways and daunting greens, Woods looked especially shaky with the flat stick—something that hasn’t necessarily been an issue this year.
As quoted by Nick Masuda of GolfWeek, via Fox Sports, even Woods admitted he struggled with those greens, particularly in adjusting the speed of his putts to the ever-changing moisture levels of Merion’s grainy greens:
I struggled with the speed all week. These greens are grainy. It's one of the older bent grasses, creeping bent. So it's a little bit grainy. I struggled with the speed, especially right around the hole, putts were breaking a lot more. I gave it a little more break, and then it would hang. That's kind of the way it was this week.
So for Tiger, his putting issues weren’t so mental as a result of the challenging greens. That may be the case, but confidence is a very fragile thing, especially when it’s tested on the biggest stage.
That stage got the best of Woods in 2002, at the very same tournament on the very same golf course.
In his third round at the 2002 British Open, Tiger sputtered at an historic clip, shooting a 10-over 81 that day for the worst single-round performance of his career, per Masuda.
As Woods himself noted, that was the worst performance of his career:
“That was the worst I ever played. The windchill was in the 30s. The umbrella became useless, because the wind was blowing so hard. We played through probably 13, 14 holes of it.”
Hopefully the weather won’t be so troublesome this week, but Muirfield is known for harboring gusting winds and unpredictable weather.
Still, putting, injuries and past experiences are just individual factors that may not have any effect on how he plays this weekend. What they do create, however, is a perfect storm of pitfalls that could severely shake Woods’ confidence.
Golf is a game few master. The physical demands of the sport are conquerable, but the mental aspect of golf is sometimes unbearable, leaving even the most talented players in the dust.
For Woods, the mental aspects of the game have rarely been an issue, but he’s shown signs to the contrary since returning from knee surgery he underwent in 2008.
Unsurprisingly, the 2008 U.S. Open provided Tiger’s last major tournament victory. Since that time, nearly every facet of his game has undergone several transformations.
Woods has a lot to overcome if he hopes to triumph at Muirfield this week and break his five-year major tournament drought. In order to win, the physical and mental aspects of his game have to be as sharp as ever for four rounds—something that hasn’t happened at a major in more than five years.