From 1997 to 2008, Tiger Woods played 46 major championships and made the cut in 45 of them. The only major championship in which he failed to play the weekend was the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot where he opened 76-76 to finish at 12 over for the week. Tiger went on to finish first or second in seven of his next eight majors after that.
There were extenuating circumstances that week at Winged Foot, of course. Woods’ father, Earl, had just passed away, but Tiger — in typical Tiger fashion — did not make excuses.
“[I’m] pissed,” said Woods after his second straight 76 that year at the U.S. Open. “That pretty much sums it up right there. I thought I was playing well enough to shoot an under-par round today, and I didn’t do that. [Missing a cut in a major is] not something you want to have happen. I’ve gone, I guess, a while without missing one. Unfortunately, I missed this one, and hopefully I can win the British.”
He did go on to win The Open Championship that year — a testament to how good he was at golf and his elite ability to bounce back at that point in his career. Much has changed over the last 14 years for Woods, for golf and for all of us. One thing that has not changed, though, is Winged Foot, a course at which he previously finished T29 during the 1997 PGA Championship.
Therein lies the problem for Tiger. He spelled this out back in 2006.
“Marginal shots are just going to get killed here; it’s just the nature of this golf course,” said Woods in 2006. “Any U.S. Open — but more so on this golf course — any U.S. Open venue that we play, any marginal shot here just gets penalized more so than any other Open.”
Woods has been playing fine since he restarted his season in July at the Memorial, but “fine” is not going to get it done this week at Winged Foot. And if it does, then it’s going to be because the winner had one of the great short-game weeks in the history of the sport. Woods’ short game has been very mediocre in 2020.
Woods is probably the best iron player of all time, and in 2006 when he missed the cut at Winged Foot, he was gaining over two strokes per round (!) on the field on his approach shots. Again, there were circumstances beyond his control that led to that year’s missed cut, but that reality — he was hitting it as well as he was and still missed the cut — is not an encouraging one for Tiger fans at the 2020 U.S. Open. This year, his strokes-gained number on approach shots is less than one.
Something is going to have to change from the end of the BMW Championship three weeks ago, where Woods labored from tee to green and failed to break par in any of his four rounds.
“This golf course was basically a U.S. Open with the rough being as high as it is and fairways a little bit narrow,” Woods said about the BMW Championship. “Look at the scores, and I don’t think that we’ve seen scores like this in a non-major in a very long time. This was a great ramp-up for me for the U.S. Open.”
It was a great ramp-up for the U.S. Open, but not a great harbinger for Tiger, who shot 75-73-72-71.
We have long passed the stage where anything Woods does should surprise us. If that lingered, he buried it forever at the 2019 Masters. And yet, contending this week at Winged Foot is not something I expect to happen. For a hundred reasons, but mostly because you have to be in complete and total command of your golf ball in every facet of the game, and Tiger Woods is not in complete command right now. Or at least he has not been in the handful of tournaments he’s played since the Memorial in July.
That could change. Nobody flips switches like Tiger. And I hope he does, because Tiger contending for a fourth U.S. Open at a place like Winged Foot with the way the biggest dogs in the sport are rolling toward titles right now would be the most compelling theater.
However, Winged Foot has a way of holding the field upside down and shaking it until the best player in a given week comes tumbling out. That has been Tiger Woods so many times over the course of his career. But based on all the evidence we have in front of us, it is not likely going to be Tiger Woods this week at Winged Foot as he tries to win the first major of the season and the 16th of his career.