Tiger Woods may have won the 2019 Masters, but Augusta National was never going to be his best shot at a major championship in this year (or any other year going forward). Though Augusta was formed with the linksland in mind, it’s not a traditional links course. Royal Portrush — site of the 148th Open Championship — is a links course, and links golf — where your mind and your hands are valued over your biceps and your back — is where Tiger makes his art.
Woods is, of course, a genius when it comes to the sport. While most majors are puzzles, none are as complex as those at The Open. It’s why those big, yellow leaderboards in Scotland and England have, in the past few years, been lit up with basically a list straight off the top 25 in the Official World Golf Rankings, in no particular order.
Big Cat is part of that cadre now. He’s the fifth-ranked player in the world. The data says that only Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka are playing better golf than Tiger Woods. (And really, that’s been the case over the past two years.) While Woods’ comeback started at the onset of 2018, it really began on Sunday at Carnoustie last year. It’s been going at Mach 4 ever since.
But it never really looked like it was going to play out that way — Woods, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth all shared the lead at different points on Sunday — until the final round. Tiger had laid back over the first three days. He was five back after Round 1, six back after Round 2 and four back going into the final 18 holes. He was just kind of hanging out above the bottom of the leaderboard but never actually trying to scrape the top of it.
It all turned in a hurry in Round 4. Things, as they say, were moving quickly, and everyone started scrambling at the realization that Tiger might win his 15th major that day. He didn’t, but it was a performance that gave us a peek into the future of Tiger at The Open.
This is part of the brilliance of Woods and the primary reason he’s built — even with that brittle spine — to win Opens into his late 40s and early 50s. He’s patient, brilliant and has the ability to hold the course on a string with one hand and the field on a different one with the other.
Consider his strategy last year at Carnoustie when he sheathed the big stick with Frank the Tiger on it in favor of some of those upright long irons of his. A distillation of Tiger’s performance over the first few days of the 2018 Open at Carnoustie looked a little something like this.
Many analysts howled at Woods’ ultra-conservative strategy across the early rounds here at big, brawny and brutish Carnoustie. He led the field in driving accuracy but routinely left himself 200-plus yards for his approach shots, relying heavily on some vintage iron play.
There are a million ways to play Opens, and Tiger chose the one that best suited him six months into this latest, most successful comeback. It’s not prescriptive of how he’ll play all Opens into the future — or even this year’s event in Northern Ireland — but it is a paragon of the breadth of his gifts and how The Open is the most receptive place for him to distribute them.
Last year was telling. It was the only major he led on a Sunday, which portends for a fascinating future tango with this little world that encompasses all the other little major worlds within it. In the last eight years, Woods has played in just 21 majors. He’s finished in the top 10 in six of them, but three of those have come at The Open.
There is the question of his layoff, of course. He hasn’t played since the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. There will always be questions with Tiger because we live in a world uncomfortable with non-answers and a dearth of information. Tiger almost never plays the week before a major, especially an Open. But he also rarely takes off the entirety of time between majors. It is the lesser of two evils, I suppose. Play and wear yourself down in front of the grueling task of conquering a monster like Portrush. Don’t play and run the risk of losing 2 percent of your flow from the year.
Woods is playing the longest game, though. Like a NBA general manager stockpiling draft picks, he is collecting major championship starts and betting that one or two or three of them will hit. It’s the smart play because he is one of the most brilliant on-course athletes of all time. Whether that results in another Claret Jug at his advancing age remains to be seen, but this one is certainly the easiest (“easiest”) of them to lock down after your spine has been fused together.
On the 10th anniversary of Tom Watson’s near miracle at Turnberry at the age of 59, it would be both more and much less surprising to see Tiger win his fourth Open and 16th major. Watson would be the only American with more.
The great thing about this — something you might not be able to say about the PGA Championship and U.S. Open — is that it almost certainly won’t be his last best shot at it.
When genius tees off on Thursday at Royal Portrush, nobody knows how he’ll tackle that place with this swing. What we do know is that his plan will likely work to the extent that his body lets it. Even if it doesn’t, links golf gives you options, and nobody in history has been better at correctly choosing the right shot at the right time and cresting at the right moment than Tiger Woods.
This Open may not belong to him, but the last Open was a reminder that Woods will matter at this tournament far longer than he should. Genius has a way of stretching the parameters of time, and while his health will always be storyline 1A or 1B, it’s not likely to hamstring him here like it might at other events. So in many ways, it seems, Tiger Woods was built for links golf but links golf was also built for Tiger Woods.