Tiger Woods is not going to win the Masters at Augusta National and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in the same calendar year just one season after returning from dozens of months spent wandering in the desert following four laborious back surgeries … right?
Crazier things have happened, I guess — like, uh, putting a man on the moon — but Woods recovering from the depths of darkness he was submerged in to take two major championships at two of the most iconic courses in the world within 100 days of each other would be the sports story of the century.
Not the year or the decade, the century.
And yet, history and reality tell me there’s at least a chance. If it’s data you’re seeking, I have plenty. Tiger has been beaten by three of 310 golfers in his history of U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach. In the four previous seasons in which he won the Masters like he did this year, Woods has finished in the top two at the U.S. Open later in the year on two occasions, and he never finished worse than the top 20. In the two prior years in which Pebble hosted the U.S. Open and Woods played the event, he finished like this at the first two majors of the year.
- 2000: 5th at the Masters | 1st at the U.S. Open
- 2010: T4 at the Masters | T4 at the U.S. Open
While Tiger probably isn’t going to win an aesthetics contest with his current swing like he did in 2000 — especially against guys like Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka — you don’t win U.S. Opens on driving ranges. Statistically-speaking, there is currently nobody better on the PGA Tour in answering Pebble Beach’s most demanding question, hitting greens in regulation (Woods is No. 1 at 72.9 percent).
Pebble Beach is great for him because of its small greens — he’ll hit a lot of those — and its length. While Woods’ work off the tee has improved immensely in 2019, it still can’t touch his iron play. On a course that will measure just north of 7,000 yards, Woods should be able to shelve the driver for his 3-wood and longer irons often.
Perhaps more importantly, Tiger has regained the most important ingredient for winning national championships: belief. As good as he has been over the course of his career, he’s still lost the majority of the tournaments in which he’s teed it up. That number has increased in recent years because of his battered body and a mind that had no reason to hope.
Then came the comeback. Then came the 2018 Tour Championship. Then came Augusta. And suddenly, Woods didn’t have to parse the strokes gained numbers to conjure up some sort of faux confidence. He needed only to look at what was draped over a hanger in his closet.
We should also mention that Pebble Beach has almost exclusively unearthed all-time great champions: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Graeme McDowell and of course Woods himself. A combined 43 majors (and don’t get at me about Kite and his 19 PGA Tour wins) between them. McDowell is the only one who doesn’t fit. This course traditionally crowns only icons. Good news for Woods.
If you’re looking for counters, I have some of those, too. Tiger doesn’t have a top 10 at a U.S. Open since 2010. He hasn’t made a cut at a U.S. Open since 2013. Something called a Marty Jertson has more recently made a major championship cut than Woods has after his ejection at Bethpage Black.
But these are all ancillary. Questions he’s answered all year and, even more recently, with a T9 finish at the Memorial Tournament. They are in the periphery of the main point: Tiger has a history here (sort of like saying Sir Edmund Hillary has a history on Mount Everest) and that he’s playing great golf heading in. It’s tough to trump the one-two history-form combination.
The clincher for me — perhaps the chief reason I believe Tiger is going to be a factor at Pebble this week — is the way he played at Muirfield Village two weeks ago. He didn’t score, but he was tremendous from tee to green and finished top 15 in the field in both approach shots and strokes gained from tee to green. I went to Augusta hollering about how Tiger had been playing better than his scores and finishes indicated early in this season at places like Riviera and Mexico, and I’m going to Pebble saying the same thing about Memorial.
The deck is stacked against him because the deck is stacked against everyone in this field. Woods is no longer standard deviations better than his competition, and even when he held that rank, he still lost frequently. He’ll have to catch breaks this week and play as well as or even better than he did at Augusta National against a field nearly twice that size. He’ll have to keep hitting greens at the historic clip he’s currently hitting them. He’ll have to get a couple of lucky lies and save a few doubles along the way. He won’t run away on Day 2 like he did in 2000. This field now — which he more or less created — is too good for that.
So while it seems unlikely and maybe even preposterous that Tiger would win both the Masters at Augusta National and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in the same year, the question I keep asking myself is a fair one given where we’re we’ve come from with Woods and where we now stand.
It’s all-time great hypothetical that would forever change how we think of Woods and perhaps even the sport itself. The question, as we descend upon Pebble Beach and the 119th U.S. Open in the 100th anniversary of this course, is this: Tiger Woods is not going to win the Masters at Augusta National and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in the same season … but what if he does?