If you would have told me one week ago that Tiger Woods would finish in the top 10 in putting out of the 2018 Quicken Loans National field, I would have asked you which seat Woods would be placing the trophy on his private flight back to Florida.
Woods ended up No. 7 in the field on the week, gaining over a stroke per round on his competitors by employing a new-look TaylorMade mallet putter; it wasn’t enough, though, as he finished T4 at the event. Tiger made at least 95 feet worth of putts over each of the final three days and connected on so many 3s from deep that I thought the Lakers might offer him the league minimum on Sunday evening as air support for LeBron James.
“I rolled the ball well this week,” said Woods after tying for first in birdies on the week. “I did some good work last week, and the putter felt good. It felt good to start my ball on the lines again. I’m starting to see it, starting to feel it, and I had the pace pretty much good all week.
“The putts I missed, I hit a lot of good ones, which I don’t mind because I hadn’t been doing that for a while — the better part of two months. Even my good ones didn’t look very good, so this was nice.”
Woods also made some messy bogeys and even pars, most notable among them probably a hideous 3-foot birdie opportunity he lipped out on Sunday on the short par-4 14th. His week was a preview of what I think the end of his career is going to be like. The talent is still there — all the shots, all the looks — but his game is not as tight as it used to be. Eight bogeys and a double found his card on the week, and many of them were simply silly mistakes around the greens or possibly even lapses in concentration.
Golf is hard.
Tiger is 8 back. pic.twitter.com/rwIdIujZwK
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 1, 2018
This happens as players get older. It’s the human body crying out that locking in for five hours over the course of four straight days is not as easy as it used to be. We’ve seen it so many times with Phil Mickelson over the past half-decade. One round, Lefty will look like the best player in the world; the next, he’ll look like he’s fighting for his card on the Web.com Tour.
If Woods can putt anywhere close to as well as he did last week — and you could likely flip the long makes and the short misses and his numbers would have been similar — he’s going to win soon. Does that mean he will take a title in 2018? I don’t know. Is he going to win a major championship again? I don’t know. But somebody ranked No. 6 (!) on the PGA Tour in strokes gained tee to green is not going to be held out of the winner’s circle.
Over the past three seasons prior to this one, only Francesco Molinari (2017), Justin Rose (2016) and Henrik Stenson (2015) have finished in the top six on the PGA Tour from tee to green and won. The other 15 golfers in that category all took home trophies.
“I’ve hit the ball well in this stretch; I just haven’t made anything,” said Woods after moving up into the top 60 on the season in putting. “Finally, I’m starting to hit some putts. I’m starting to make those putts … you’re supposed to make from 10, 15 feet, but I’m also making some from outside 20. I haven’t done that, as I said, for the better part of two months. So that was nice to make over 100 foot of putts, I think, twice this week. That’s a positive sign.”
Tiger will now take the next two weeks off — Greenbrier and John Deere Classic — and try to get his game ready for the third major of 2018, one he hasn’t won since 2006. He will likely head to Europe with the mallet and a boatload of confidence on Carnoustie’s windswept greens.
Major championships, though, are not only about putting. They’re about finding out who’s hitting the ball best and then of those players, which one makes the most putts.
“[I will be] trying to get efficient hitting the golf ball both ways and then getting comfortable hitting the ball down,” said Woods of his Open prep work. “Carnoustie is an unbelievable driving golf course, you have to drive the ball well there, but also … it’s not your traditional in-out golf course. It’s a lot of different angles, so a lot of different crosswinds. I have to be able to maneuver the golf ball both ways there efficiently. Yeah, you just have to hit the golf ball well there.”
Woods has played Carnoustie twice. In 1999, he shot 294 and finished T7. Then in 2007, as the defending Open champion, he shot 282 and finished T12.
“The year we played in ’99, I think I made one birdie on the weekend,” said Woods. “I finished three or four back of the playoff. That was ridiculous how hard it was. I don’t know if they’re going to have it like that, but you just never know.
“It’s been warm over there, and so hence, the grass will probably grow. And that’s one of the neat things about playing the Open Championship: They don’t really care what par is, they just let whatever Mother Nature has. If it’s in store for a wet Open, it is. If it’s dry, it’s dry. They don’t try and manufacture an Open.”
I don’t love Tiger’s chances at the Open if only because of the glut of talent at the top tier of golf. He hasn’t been sharp at the two majors so far this year, where you kind of have to be sharp to contend. You can get away with eight bogeys and a double at the Quicken Loans National because it’s the Quicken Loans National. If you hit the shots you hit there at an Open, the ejection will be swift and violent.
But … and these are three big ones … if Tiger jams the driver in his Monster bag, if he gets the right side of the draw and if he putts it anywhere near as well as he putted it at TPC Potomac, this is the major I think he has the best opportunity to win this year. I’ve thought that all year. Tiger struggles with the big stick. Always has. But his flighted irons off the tee and institutional knowledge around links courses are both as good as it gets in golf. Not past tense. Currently.
Woods will take a suddenly-impressive putter across the pond in an attempt at major No. 15, which he probably won’t win. But the performance at the Quicken Loans National was robust enough to make you wonder …