Any golf fan will tell you that the four major championships are without question the most important tournaments played each and every year.
These four events are even more important for 38-year-old Tiger Woods as he tries to chase down Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship titles.
Woods will resume his quest to scale Mt. Nicklaus in exactly four weeks at Augusta National, the site of the 2014 Masters.
While all four majors technically offer Woods an opportunity to move one step closer to Nicklaus’ record, when it comes to Woods’ current game and fragile body, not all majors are created equally.
The Open Championship and the Masters, will become increasingly more important to Woods over the next seven-to-10 years as he attempts to win five more major championships and surpass Nicklaus’ all-time record.
While it is certainly not impossible, Woods’ days of winning U.S. Opens and PGA Championships are nearing their end, if they have not already concluded.
You see, Woods is one of the few players on tour that has actually gotten shorter off of the tee during the past 10-15 years.
Back in 2004, Woods averaged 301.9 yards off the tee and ranked ninth on tour in driving distance. Last season Woods averaged 293.2 yards off of the tee and ranked 49th in driving distance, while so far in 2014 Woods has averaged just 287.3 yards off of the tee as he has attempted to play through what he has described as “back spasms.”
During the six-year period between 1999 and 2004, Woods averaged 297.23 yards off of the tee. Between 2008 and 2013 Woods averaged 295.46 yards off of the tee.
Although this decrease is rather minor, it is still quite shocking when considering that the average driving distance on tour has increased by 20 yards, or 7.41 percent during roughly this same period of time.
In 1998, the average driving distance on tour was just over 270 yards. Thirteen years later in 2012, the average driving distance on tour hit the 290-yard mark.
Woods, of course, used to dominate major championships 10-12 years ago while hitting the ball virtually the same distance as he does today. But, while Woods’ distance has remained the same, everything else around him has changed.
Woods’ injury report over the past decade looks more like that of an NFL lineman than a professional golfer, while the total yardage at U.S. Open and PGA Championship venues has expanded by more than 500 yards in some cases.
Whereas U.S. Opens and PGA Championships used to be held at courses that maxed out at 6,800–7,000 yards, today’s tournaments are often held at courses that max out to 7,500–7,600 yards.
For example, Pinehurst No. 2, the site of this year’s U.S. Open Championship, played 7,214 yards when it hosted the 2005 U.S. Open but will play nearly 7,500 yards when it hosts in June.
That is an increase of nearly 300 yards in just nine years; a period of time where Woods’ driving distance has decreased by 0.67 percent.
Ten-12 years ago Woods was able to hit wayward tee shots at U.S. Open and PGA Championship venues and muscle 7-irons out of the thick rough and onto the green.
That is no longer the case.
That 7-iron a healthy Woods used to gouge out of the rough and onto the green 10 years ago, is now a four or five-iron that Woods is attempting to bash out of the rough with a bad knee, bad back, bad wrist, bad neck, bad Achilles, etc. etc.
This combination of health issues, distance issues and longer, more difficult course setups have made it exponentially more difficult for Woods to win a U.S. Open or PGA Championship today when compared to 10 years ago.
During the past four years, Woods has three top 10s at the Masters and two top 10s at the Open Championship, while he has posted just one top 10 at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship combined.
Woods has in fact finished outside the top 10 at Augusta National just once since 2005.
This is one of the main reasons why Woods is pushing so hard to prepare for the 2014 Masters despite a back issue that seems to increase in severity each time he steps onto the golf course.
Augusta National has become the perfect setup for Woods due to its extremely generous fairways and almost non-existent rough. Outside of a few creeks and the rare occasion where one might be completely stymied by a tall Georgia Pine, there are very few areas around Augusta National where players cannot recover from should they hit a wayward tee shot.
Although Open Championships are contested at links golf courses which in no way, shape or form even resemble Augusta National, under the right conditions, the same principle of generous fairways and a small amount of rough would hold true for many of the Open Championship venues as well.
When conditions are dry and firm over in England and Scotland, Woods is able to navigate his way around these links tracks with nothing more than a few long irons, a couple of wedges and his putter, just as he did last year at Muirfield where he tied for sixth and back in 2006 where he completely dominated Royal Liverpool while hardly taking his driver out of the bag all week.
Ten years ago Woods could show up at a venue on the moon and completely dominate the field.
But that is no longer the case today.
Based on Woods’ physical issues, his inability to control his tee ball and his loss of distance, the courses Woods can realistically win at are diminishing by the year.
Many golf fans out there might be asking themselves why Woods is so desperate to play through these “back spasms” and risk his long term health in order to prepare for just one major championship—the 2014 Masters.
Well, the answer to that question is quite simple.
Woods doesn’t have 40 chances over the next decade to win five more majors. He will realistically have just 20 opportunities to win another five majors and those 20 opportunities will come at just two events—the Masters and the Open Championship.
So, each time Woods lets a Masters or Open Championship slip by due to injury, a lack of preparation, or any other reason imaginable, it is a HUGE deal in terms of his quest to break Nicklaus’ record.
There is little question that Woods is going to do everything humanly possible to prepare for the 2014 Masters and based on the route that Woods must now take to the top of Mt. Nicklaus, could anyone blame him?
Unless otherwise specified, all statistics for this article came from pgatour.com and espn.com.