(KMOX) — First, let me point out I hate to run with the pack. I am more contrarian by nature and to join the herd in handicapping this week’s Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St. Annes goes against my instincts.
Less than a year ago I sat at a lunch table with some of the most recognizable names in golf writing as they one by one proclaimed Tiger Woods officially finished. As I wrote a year ago, one of the writing ‘elite’ went so far as to cite a nurse friend of his in Texas who thought Woods should be on a “suicide watch.” I countered that I was weakening, but thought Tiger would be back. Now three PGA Tour wins and one unofficial win later, I relish the against the flow position then as much as being right.
So to join the herd of lemmings who have reversed course and say, I too have Woods in my claret jug winner’s circle this week, is less than satisfying. So let me stake out my reasoning to see if I can run beside the crowd as we leap off the cliff.
Picking a major winner these days is like drawing a name from a hat. Recent history suggests there is nothing resembling a major favorite in golf. So my first step is to reduce the number of names in the hat.
Since fifteen different people have won the last 15 majors, we can eliminate that group from the hat. No Phil. No Bubba. No Lucas. No Darren or Webb. Since the more than ninety year history of winners at Lytham has featured only Hall of Fame talents, with the exception of David Duval and possibly Tom Lehman, you can x-out most of the remainder of the field. And since the only winner from the British Isles was Tony Jacklin in 1969, you can cross off the everyone from Scotland, Ireland and England. Sorry Luke and Lee.
Who’s left? Tiger, of course. Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Retief Goosen would also be among those still alive.
Now let’s shift to why select Tiger from this list. The experts point to his win at Hoylake in 2006 as the form that predicts his success this year. Woods all but left the driver in the bag that week, stinging irons to safe fairway positions and yawning his way to victory. It is that same form that was on display in his wins this year at Bay Hill, Muirfield and Congressional along with his first two days at Olympic. Lytham barely stretches beyond 7000 yards and length will not be the separation skill for whoever posts the win.
Weather is always a consideration at the Open Championship, and early week rains are expected to be followed by more downpours each day but Sunday’s final round. My take is that soggy turf makes this Open more American target golf than British bump and run. You will hear repeatedly about the courses 205 bunkers and their penal nature. When Woods has won his Opens he has largely kept his ball “clean.” With all the water hitting the course for the week, the bunkers become less daunting because the typical run to the fairways will be reduced and more balls will need to land in bunkers than roll into them.
Then there is always putting at a major. Open rotation courses are typically slower than their American counterparts, and with no sub-air systems in England, the pace this week should be even slower. For Woods and the rest of the field that may suggest good but not great might win on the greens. At this stage of the Woods return “good but not great” is exactly what Tiger has been. His victory at Congressional was accomplished without a three putt.
Finally there is inevitability. It is time for some semblance of normalcy to return to the majors. We have had enough mystery guests picking up the hardware in the last four years. These events have always been the stages for the game’s best, and even diminished without a major win in four years and twelve attempts, Tiger Woods is still the headliner in the game. His longest drought without a major title was previously ten early in his career when he changed his swing and paid his dues.
In 2012, he clearly has demonstrated he remembers how to win, and I suspect that memory includes the additional challenge in the majors. He is healthy, he is rested, he appears to have much of his confidence and focus back, and the Foley swing shows up more often than not. That nurse in Texas has taken him off the ‘watch list,’ and he now is back on the ‘must watch list.’ There have been fifteen different winners in the last fifteen majors. Make that sixteen at Royal Lytham and St. Annes and chalk up the fifteenth major for Tiger Woods. (Please no wagering.)
Dan Reardon is Golf Editor at KMOX in St. Louis. He can be heard throughout the week on “America’s Sports Voice.”