Tiger Woods at British Open 2014: Final Grades at Royal Liverpool
There’s really two ways to look at the play of Tiger Woods at the British Open Championship at Hoylake. One can look at it independent of recent history (back surgery) or take his round with the qualification of the back surgery. One is sensible, the other not quite as much.
"I was down for three months so I'm just now starting to come back," Woods told reporters. "I'm still building. I'm still working on my game and I'm still getting stronger and faster."
Woods’ attendance in this tournament wasn’t ceremonial: He was in it, as the saying goes, to win it. So grading him independent of the back surgery is the only way that would be fair, less insulting and less condescending.
“He’s the big draw,” said ESPN 3’s Kim Thomas during the broadcast. “It’s a shame he’s not quite on his A-game. Too much to ask for on his first time back. “
He’s not exactly graduating Royal Liverpool cum laude.
We’ve been evaluating Woods on a day-to-day basis, but we'll now grade him on his entire tournament with a look toward what’s coming up for the remainder of 2014.
Woods started Sunday with irons instead of drivers, and it appeared he was going for a conservative, steady round of golf. He birdied the first hole and looked as if he were going to put together a nice round of golf, one that would make the bumpy flight back across the Atlantic more enjoyable.
His play off the tee Sunday was actually solid. He hit 14 fairways to up his total to 37-of-72 for the tournament.
Looking ahead, Woods needs to clean up his drives off the tee. It’s the only way his skill set can be fully optimized if he has to carry bunkers and hazards. Otherwise the rest of the year will look much like his Open Championship.
“It’s like he doesn’t want to be out there,” Tom Weiskopf said during the ESPN 3 broadcast.
It wasn’t always like that early, but as Woods’ play unraveled faster than Weezer’s sweater, it did appear he wanted to get off the course and back to the States as fast as possible.
Iron Play: C-
Day 4 was just awful, and Woods' iron play was largely average for most of the Open. Thursday was more of a mirage than anything: that day long, long ago when Woods was three-under and a genuine threat.
Turns out the following three days illustrated where he truly is with his game at this point.
Some swings are visual illustrations of his body of work at large. He hit a beautiful tee shot on 10. His subsequent iron saw him drop his club on his follow-through as he nailed the ball far right. Honestly, he looked like an amateur hacker toward the end of a frustrating round, trying just to get to the clubhouse for a burger and a Heineken...several Heinekens.
Woods had a chance on Sunday to let his iron play shine, since he was decent off the tee. He finished the Open by hitting 48 of 72 greens.
Coming up he’s got the Bridgestone Invitational, where he’s the defending champion. He’ll tee off in that tournament in 11 days. By that time he’ll be six rounds of golf stronger as he eyes the PGA Championship at Valhalla, where he won in 2000 (Terminator Tiger).
Thomas said during the ESPN 3 stream of Woods’ Open takeaway: "Hopefully fitness. He’ll feel good he’s lasted the pace. He’ll have to analyze the way he thought about the course and the plan he had and didn’t stick to. He’ll think about his confidence level and how he can build that up and talk with himself, really."
Around the Greens: C-
Woods rarely gave himself a chance around the greens. Many of his chips left him with very challenging birdie and par putts.
Over the years we’ve grown accustomed to Woods’ mastery around the greens, or simply his ability to turn a sour shot into something sweet. The Open Championship saw him get progressively worse with many of his shots.
Watching Rory McIlroy was like watching a young Woods. When McIroy put it in the rough it didn’t seem like a death sentence. On 14, Woods had a long chip to get it close to save par. He didn’t. He left himself a slippery 12-foot putt to save par. He missed it right and registered his third bogey on the back nine.
But on 16, Woods hit a long chip that stopped one foot away from the cup.
“I remember that guy!” ESPN’s Trey Wingo said during the broadcast.
Woods’ lag putting all weekend was what earned him a Saturday and a Sunday at Hoylake. His iron play and chips around the green often left him with difficult putts just to make par, let alone birdie.
The announcers' commentary about "the old Woods" making these putts wore thin. It’s true: The old Woods felt automatic from eight to 12 feet. He always had such a great feel.
Woods saw many putts lip out or just miss the cup by the width of a Nike swoosh. These are the things that come with repetition.
It’s really the trickle-down effect that starts at the tee box. Errant shots led to challenging irons that left him with 20-foot putts for birdie and par. That’s too much to ask of a golfer in top form, let alone someone playing in just his sixth round of competitive golf since a microdiscectomy.
Course Management: C-
Thursday’s strategy earned him five birdies in six holes on the back nine. On Friday, Woods was bent on using the driver to carry bunkers but instead found himself in thick rough off the fairways. He picked his poison, and the poison picked him apart.
Woods could have and should have made adjustments on Friday when the driver wasn’t working. David Duval, ESPN’s analyst, noted that Woods had a fine game plan but failed to execute.
Great (even good) football coaches adapt game plans when things just aren’t working. Woods has the mentality to will his plan into fruition. Thomas said during the ESPN 3 broadcast:
When Plan A Failed when his swing wasn’t working well, there seemed to be no Plan B. He just went along with the flow. He wasn’t organized. That last hole  showed it for me. He didn’t think properly on the second shot. What was he doing going with a fade there over those bunkers? There’s no future in that shot.
Stingers worked very well for Woods all weekend, when he chose to the play them. He could’ve saved himself 10 strokes had he chose to sting (love at first sting).
At times he just seemed erratic and failed to manage the course at all, like on 18 on Sunday. He sprayed his second shot to the one part he shouldn’t: in the rough with several bunkers in play. Just ugly stuff.
Final Grade: C
At one point Woods said that anything short of winning would be a disappointment. That was positively unrealistic, but that’s just him acting the way he always has. His fans wouldn’t want to hear anything else, one would suppose.
Woods flashed intermittent bouts of brilliance. He was never dazzling off the tee the way Dustin Johnson or McIlroy were. He sank some long putts but not enough. He chipped the ball close but not enough. His iron play gave him chances at birdie, but never enough chances.
But he made the cut, which gave him more golf. Andy North, ESPN’s golf analyst, said during the broadcast:
Anytime you can get more golf under your belt after you haven’t played is going to be very important. He is obviously is struggling with some of the bad shots, but he is hitting a lot of good ones, and he’ll take that away as a positive.
Woods told reporters:
The fact I was able to play a few weeks ahead of time and I'm only getting stronger and faster, which is great.
I think we did the smart thing by not playing too much leading into this event, we just wanted to assess how my back was and where I need to strengthen, how I need to go about it, how to gain my explosiveness again, and all that's come along.
He’s a long way from putting it all together, but the pieces are there. Once he regroups and defends his title at Bridgestone, we’ll have a better sense of where he is and whether he has a legitimate shot at Valhalla, where he shot 18-under to win back in 2000.
Extra Credit: A Look Ahead to the PGA and Ryder Cup
The weekend at Royal Liverpool was never about winning. It was an audition.
Much of the week centered around Woods being named to the Ryder Cup team. Tom Watson, Ryder Cup captain, was peppered with questions about Woods’ possible inclusion on the team. He was tactful, asking, “Wouldn’t you want Tiger Woods on your team?”
Wingo said during the ESPN 3 broadcast, "Tiger can say 'I’m fine, I’m fine.' But as Tom Watson said, 'That doesn’t matter. It’s results.'"
He qualified his answer by dismissing how Woods would tell him how he felt, but that he would select solely on performance.
As Watson shot a four-under 68 on Sunday and Woods shot a 75, "performance" was the operative word. This was Woods' worst finish in a major in which he made the cut.
Woods needs to put all aspects of his game together if he is to perform better at Bridgestone and the PGA Championship. He’s running out of opportunities to prove his capability and his ability to perform at the Ryder Cup.
In the early rounds after his surgery, he doesn’t appear to be the kind of player who can win tournaments. Not yet, anyway. He can, however, prove to be valuable on a Ryder Cup team if he can show signs of managing all aspects of his game.
It’s in hibernation, trying to wake.