The conjecture over whether Tiger Woods made an error in not playing competitive golf between the Masters and PGA Championship is not likely to subside, with legitimate arguments on both sides of the issue, especially given his missed cut at the year’s second major championship.
But there is clearly a benefit to having tournament rounds two weeks prior to a major, as Woods logged this past weekend at the Memorial Tournament, where he tied for ninth.
Although Muirfield Village is nothing like Pebble Beach will be for the U.S. Open, which begins June 13, the tournament gave Woods some feedback on where his game stands.
“I was hoping I could get something positive going into the (U.S. Open), and I was able to accomplish that, which is great,” Woods said. “And get some nice positive momentum going into a nice practice week.”
Woods never really had that prior to the PGA Championship a few weeks ago. He chose a longer break after winning the Masters, skipping a possible tuneup at the Wells Fargo Championship.
While it remains up for debate whether or not that was a good idea, there is no denying that Woods was not sharp at Bethpage Black. He played a practice round at the course the week prior, but got in just nine holes on site before the start of the tournament. A Wednesday illness did not help.
Six rounds since the Masters is not a huge sample size, but it does give Woods something to study. His 5-under-67 on Sunday at Muirfield Village was his first score in the 60s since a 67 at Augusta National during the third round of the Masters.
It also saw him once again get hot on the front side, while running into some difficulty on the back, which he played in 2 over for the week. Still, Woods found more fairways and greens over the weekend, and appeared to be pleased with his ball striking.
“I drove it great this week,” he said. “I hit the tee shots I wanted to. I hit a couple of loose irons shots. And fairway bunker game wasn’t good, caught a couple of lips coming out of there. But 14 (a par-4) is a perfect example. Two wedges the last couple of days and walked away with two bogeys. Those are loose things you can’t afford to have happen in an Open. If I can clean those up, I should be all right.”
And that’s the idea. Woods saw in the heat of competition what went right and wrong. For a good bit of the tournament, he struggled with a pulled or hooked tee shot, even with fairway woods. It was a pulled iron shot at the par-5 15th — just as it was a pulled 5-wood on the same hole Thursday — that cost him a birdie opportunity on Sunday.
Woods had spent time on the driving range Friday evening working on drills to correct that flaw.
“What I’ve noticed more since he came back from this injury, he hits a lot more controlled shots,” said Ryan Armour, who played with Woods on Saturday and who goes back to junior golf with Woods. “He was always the greatest iron player in the world. But now he’s hitting controlled drivers, and controlled 3-woods. It’s not lash at it and try and hit it as far as you can. I think he kind of checked that ego a little bit. All you’ve got to do is get him in the fairway, and as good as his iron game is, he’s going to play well.”
Woods’ iron game was good but not great at Muirfield. It remains the strength of his game and the key to success. At the Masters, he led the field in greens in regulation. He leads that PGA Tour in that category. He was slightly below his average at the Memorial, but was aided greatly by hitting 14 greens on Sunday.
With a week until Woods is on site at Pebble Beach, here is a look at various aspects of his game through eight tournaments and 26 stroke-play rounds (plus the WGC-Match Play) in 2019.
This no longer seems a huge issue given that he won the Masters and putted well enough at Augusta National to get the job done. But the truth is, Woods’ strokes gained putting ranks just 73rd on the PGA Tour. He was 78th going into the Masters and has obviously been impacted somewhat by a poor putting performance at the PGA Championship. On putts inside 10 feet, Woods is 162nd and from 4 to 8 feet he is tied for 69th. And he is 197th in three-putt avoidance — he’s had 20 three-putts this year in 26 stroke-play rounds.
The greens at Pebble Beach are some of the smallest in the game, but the poa annua surface is one that has given Woods fits at times, despite his success at the venue. That’s the same putting greens he saw at Torrey Pines, Riviera, Mexico and Bethpage. They will undoubtedly be fast for a U.S. Open, which Woods likes, but probably bumpy, too.
Little has changed here; Woods remains among the best in the game, and this will be a key at Pebble Beach. He led the field in greens in regulation at the Masters and is first on the PGA Tour in that category.
What the GIR stats don’t show, however, is wedge play. Woods might hit a green, but if he’s a long way from the flagstick, he’s lost a scoring chance. That was a problem again at the Memorial. For the year, on approach shots from 50 to 125 yards — prime wedge area — he ranks just 152nd, with an average distance of 30 feet, 3 inches. (Ryan Moore leads at 18 feet). Woods actually fell several spots after the Memorial.
This is always a work in progress for Woods, but generally he has been so much better off the tee throughout 2019. Hitting 12 of 14 fairways at Muirfield Village — fairways are generally wide there — on Sunday was a good sign.
For the year, Woods ranks 70th in strokes gained off the tee and he is 62nd in driving accuracy, hitting 64.4 percent of his fairways. Those are good numbers for Woods, and obviously being able to play from the fairway only enhances his ability to take advantage of the strongest part of his game. He is ninth in strokes gained tee to green.
“I’m trying to get deep enough in the backswing to make sure, when I do swing left, it’s not wipey,” Woods said, meaning he doesn’t come across the ball and lose power and direction.
Woods’ back is always the great unknown as he attempts to get ready for any competitive golf. The balance between practice and maintenance is often a fine line, one that he has attempted to straddle since returning from spinal fusion surgery last year.
“Well, I feel a lot better,” Woods said. “That’s going to be the trick going forward. I’m never going to be able to play as much as I used to. And just trying to balance that and being prepared and sharp. And trying to figure out the playing schedule, trying to get a good balance of that and being prepared and also taking care of the body. It’s new.”
Woods has already taken a trip to Pebble Beach. He played a practice round at the Northern California course on May 23. He won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a record 15 shots.
He has not competed at there since finishing tied for 15th at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 2012. He also tied for fourth at the 2000 U.S. Open.
“Looking forward to a week from now when we start,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “Certainly going in the right direction, good momentum. I thought the iron play was top-notch (Sunday). The one on 15 wasn’t great and the one on 18 wasn’t great but other than that I thought it was pretty flawless.”