Can Tiger get major-ready for The Open?

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We can surmise now that the jet lag has worn off, that he is settled back into the hot, humid, South Florida reality that is summer and that Tiger Woods is back to the business of preparing for a major championship.

These are only educated guesses, based on the fact that Woods returned from a family vacation to Thailand last week, traditionally puts in the heavy lifting of tournament preparation at his home course, The Medalist, (or sometimes at Albany in the Bahamas) and undoubtedly wants to be as ready as possible for The Open, which begins on July 18.

Just how poised Woods will be to make a run at a fourth Claret Jug when The Open begins next week at Royal Portrush will continue to be the subject of considerable conjecture.

“I personally think if you’re serious about winning The Open, you’ve got to be playing tournament golf at least before it,” two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington said before last week’s Irish Open. “You’d rather be playing links golf and being in a tournament than just [playing] on your own, so if you’re serious about trying to win the Open, you should be playing at least one, if not two, of the events running into it.

“I was always mightily impressed when Tiger Woods would play in a major without playing the week before. I’d be a basket case if I didn’t play the week before.”

Woods has never played the before The Open as a professional. Skipping tournament golf between major championships didn’t work out so well earlier this year for Woods as he came off his Masters victory and then looked out of sorts in missing the cut at the PGA Championship at Bethpage.

Woods has skipped playing events between majors on seven previous occasions, with varying degrees of success.

The last time he did so prior to The Open was in 2013, when Woods suffered an elbow injury playing the U.S. Open at Merion, then skipped two tournaments he was scheduled to play prior to the Open at Muirfield; he was two shots back heading to the final round before tying for sixth.

Woods also won a PGA Championship and a U.S. Open having not played since the previous major, but those were different times, well before injuries derailed entire seasons and tournament reps became an important part of his comeback.

You can spin this however you want: that no PGA Tour venue prior to The Open was particularly suited to preparing him for a links such as Royal Portrush, and that rest and relaxation were in order with a busy schedule upcoming; or that Woods needed tournament rounds to be better prepared.

The evidence points to the latter, especially considering Woods played the Quicken Loans National a year ago at TPC Potomac — not exactly great prep for Carnoustie — and then was in contention at The Open a few weeks later, tying for sixth.

He also built his way toward this year’s Masters, playing five events — including two in the four weeks before the tournament.

At this point, after four back surgeries and a deliberate attempt to balance his physical issues, there is legitimate concern that just 10 rounds of competitive golf since the Masters — spread over three months — is not enough.

And then there are various aspects of his game to dissect. With more than a week to go until the first shots are in the air at Royal Portrush, here is a look at Woods’ game through nine tournaments and 30 stroke play rounds in 2019.

Putting

It is clear now, some 30 tournaments into Woods’ return from spinal fusion surgery over the past two seasons, that putting at the level he did during his prime is a huge ask. He is a decent, not great, putter. He will have his streaky moments, and it will be important to seize on those rounds and weeks. But even a slight improvement in putting would greatly help in going after PGA Tour victory No. 82.

Just look at the Masters. Woods took 15 more putts than Francesco Molinari, who finished two shots back in a tie for fifth. He took seven more than Dustin Johnson, five more than Xander Schauffele and two more than Brooks Koepka — all of whom tied for second, just a shot back. That is a sign of how well Woods hit the ball — and also how everything had to go right.

For this season, Woods ranks a modest 61st in strokes gained putting. The trouble shows up from inside 10 feet, where he has made 86 percent of his putts to rank 168th; he’s just 164th from 15 to 20 feet. And he is 189th in three-putt avoidance, with 22 three-putt greens in 540 holes.

What does it all mean? Generally, Woods is putting worse than those he’s trying to beat, and could use improved putting to make up for the inevitable issues that are bound to come up in other areas.

Iron play

The hallmark of his game throughout his career, it still remains Woods’ strongest aspect — although he has slipped from No. 1 on the PGA Tour to No. 3 in greens in regulation since the Masters, averaging 71.5 percent. He is eighth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained approach, as well as proximity to the hole, with an average approach shot of 34 feet, 1 inch. The continued troubling area? From 50 to 125 yards, Woods ranks 175th on the PGA Tour, with an average proximity of 21 feet.

During the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Woods was up and down in all areas, eventually finishing 26th in strokes gain putting, but just 20th for the week in greens in regulation.

Hitting a high percentage of greens seems obvious for success, but just as important is hitting it closer to the flag with wedges and 9-irons.

Driving

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of Woods’ comeback. After struggling at times in 2018, Woods seemingly has put it together off the tee, at least in relation to how much he struggled at times during his recent years on the course. While he is a decent 67th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee, it’s his accuracy that has really improved, up to 49th with an average of 65.9 percent of fairways hit. Getting to 60 percent has typically been a struggle.

“He’s hitting lot of greens in regulation, which is important,” Harrington said recently. “He’s probably lost a bit of ball speed this year [it is nearly 10 mph slower than his average a year ago], which I think is a conscious decision, to take some pressure off his back. He realizes if you’re still leading greens in regulation, it’s obviously shown that he doesn’t need that ball speed.”

If conditions are firm and fast at Royal Portrush, Woods and others will be forced into more strategic decisions off the tee, such as fairway woods or irons. At times, Woods has been remarkably conservative in this regard, choosing to find fairways over risking playing from the rough.

Now comes the great unknown. How much was Woods able to practice, if at all, while he was on vacation? He undoubtedly got to the gym, but will a two-plus-week layoff from serious practice and playing be a positive or negative, with the potential for so much golf ahead?

Woods’ public comments have been limited since the U.S. Open. There was this:

He also congratulated the United States Women’s National Team on its victory at the World Cup and then, this week, said in a Nike Instagram story that he is waking up at 1 a.m. on the East Coast in an effort to get acclimated to the time difference in Northern Ireland.

Woods also is unfamiliar with Royal Portrush. “I’ve never been up to Portrush, and I’m looking forward to getting up there and taking a look at the golf course and trying to figure it out,” he said at the U.S. Open.

“I hope that my practice rounds are such that we get different winds, especially on a golf course that I’ve never played, and to get a different feel for how it could play for the week. And definitely have to do my homework once I get there.”

There, again, is another question: How much time on the course does Woods need to prepare? At the major championships, Woods has evolved into a routine of playing just one 18-hole practice round followed by nine-holers in the days leading up to the championship. More time on the course would seem to be in order here.

Then again, no amount of course preparation matters if his game is not there. Plenty of inconsistencies arose at Bethpage, Muirfield Village and Pebble Beach, and now there is no competitive event to garner any feedback.

Woods has several times insisted he will not overdo it this year, as he felt he did in 2018, when he played 18 times on the PGA Tour. This year, he’s headed for 14, and that’s if he plays the WGC-FedEx Invitational the week following The Open.

To do that will mean five tournaments in six weeks including three in a row during the FedEx Cup playoffs. Woods has played twice in a row just once this year, the Genesis Open (T-15) and the WGC-Mexico Championship (T-10). He has not played even as much as three times in four weeks all year.

On some level, that is all about to change, with preparing for The Open the first and most immediate priority.

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