Do or Die
Remember when Tiger Woods didn’t even have to think about Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 Major wins? When it was a given he’d race to that number and leave the greats in his path? He does, too.
Now with the pressure growing in each tournament he enters, Tiger is staring the Golden Bear right in the eyes in a make-or-break year.
I’m usually the last one to hit the panic button on Tiger, one of (if not the) greatest to ever play. Eventually, though, the year where he must win a major tournament had to come. With his old competition, Phil, Ernie, and Vijay, fading into Champions Tour players, it’s Tiger’s time to make a run at 18 majors. It seems the pressure for him to win a major is not only there, but it’s haunted him in each of his last five major-less years and has possibly contributed to his ‘dormancy’.
Tiger Woods is no longer dormant. In fact, he was dormant for around a year, when he took part of 2009 off due to his injured knee, and some of 2010 after his marriage fell apart while the entire world watched. No one will remember his return from that leave of absence, a fourth-place finish at Augusta, or his identical finish the Masters following. No one will remember his finish atop the FedEx Cup standings in 2012. Above all, coming into this US Open, few will remember his four wins this year. Tiger Woods was the only player on tour to have multiple wins in 2013 until Matt Kuchar took home the Memorial last weekend.
Through it all, Woods managed to become the winningest golfer of all time, eclipsing the 73-win mark set by Jack Nicklaus. Through marriage infidelities, a swing change, a new putter, a new swing coach, and a new caddy, Tiger fell to #58 in the world. But he’d be back. He was ‘back’ after a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last year which snapped a winless streak dating back to 2009. He was ‘back’ after yet another triumph at the Arnold Palmer, the eighth of his career and the third win of 2013. And he’ll be ‘back’ after he wins the 2013 US Open at Merion.
It’s always painful for me to pick Tiger Woods to win a major. Back at his peak, it was the easiest thing to do, and it still is. Tiger Woods is still the face of golf and a constant Vegas favorite. He has the largest following in the sport by far, and has been the consensus pick to win nearly every major he’s played in. This year, though, Tiger has to win.
In an ironic twist, the short Merion Golf Club plays right into Woods’ hands. It was only five years ago Tiger was the expected champion at long courses, because he out-drove almost everyone.
The short course doesn’t help Tiger because he’s lost that much distance (he’s still the 12th best driver on tour), it’s due to his elite putting, ranked second, and his great short game in general. He won’t have much difficulty hitting narrow fairways this weekend, as he’ll hit driver maybe three times per round. From 200 yards in, who can really beat him? If he’s consistently hitting fairways, as he should be, there’s no reason a wedge in isn’t going to result in a lot of birdies. Couple that with a great sand save rate this year (61%) and he fits the historic Merion perfectly.
The only one who can beat him on the greens is Steve Stricker, who’s time to win his first major is running out. The only one with a better smile is Matt Kuchar, who just so happens to be surging into the US Open, doing the opposite of Tiger. Throw in a few angered anchor-putters, who are desperate to get the PGA to change their minds about banning the extended flatsticks, and you’ve got a nice group of people with a great shot to win this tournament.
Are there other competitors? Of course there are. Bubba Watson can be named one, for his ability to shape shots. Webb Simpson may be another, someone who’s handled the pressure of the Open before. Then you’ve got some golfers hungry for the spotlight like Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner. And, of course, there’s always Brandt Snedeker, who can play with the best of ‘em, but can crack under pressure.
Regardless of the threats to Tiger, he’s still the favorite to win his first major since the 2008 US Open. That’s not news to him or anyone who’s watched golf over the past five years. What should be news to him is the fact he needs to win this US Open, because if he doesn’t, he may never reach 18 majors. He may be remembered for stumbling off tour, disappearing after 20 some-odd years of dominance.