Major alert as Tiger Woods finds dangerous form
Doubters say world No 1's limbs and mind can no longer take the pressure of majors, but that momentum and history are with him as he heads to US PGA
And so to upstate New York for the final reckoning of the season at the venerable Oak Hill, where Lee Trevino won his first major, and Jack Nicklaus set a US PGA record with the margin of victory, seven strokes, in 1980. Oak Hill remains the only club to have hosted the holy trinity of US Open, US Amateur and US PGA Championship, and it is the latter that is calling Tiger Woods to account next week.
Over in Akron, 280 miles to the west, Woods returned to his coruscating best this week at the WGC-Bridgestone, equalling his own Firestone course record of 61 on Friday, ten lower than the field average. He led at half way by a ridiculous seven shots on 13 under par, laying the groundwork for a fifth win this season. In this kind of shape a 15th major victory would appear a formality, but then that line of thinking ran into brick walls at each of the major championships this season. He was perhaps unfortunate at the Masters, where rank bad luck and a rules cock-up, blew up into a crisis that would have destroyed the rhythm of any.
There was no excuse in the US Open at Merion, where he never got it going, or a fortnight ago in the Open at Muirfield, where he fell away on the final day. Beating up the world's best players in the context of a World Golf Championship is, therefore, no indicator of major health. Over 14 weekend rounds at his last seven majors Woods is a collective 23 over par. These numbers are so clearly at odds with the peak years they demand explanations that go beyond the bounce of the ball.
This is tricky territory since it requires us to deconstruct the iron certainties that we associate with Woods; the nerveless temperament, the ruthless finishing, the preternatural ability to block out all threats to his equilibrium, all of which were present this week.
The current orthodoxy suggests Woods has acquired a mortal fallibility in the post-scandal years since 2009, that with each passing year since his last major success in the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines he has felt the limbs tightening. In other words the pressure is getting to him, the mind is weakened in major competition, the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record total of 18 majors is in his head.
This argument is devilishly difficult to counter. Woods's own account challenges the myths constructed around him. He was complicit in this, of course. The ethnic totem smashing golfing stereotypes with improbable victories made him rich beyond the imagination. His 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters as a 21-year-old tour rookie, the 15-shot triumph at the US Open three years later were epic. Though he made it look easy he insists it never was.
Five of his 14 major wins were by at least five strokes, but three have come in play-offs, and the US PGA in 1999, was claimed by a stroke, narrow margins that might have gone against him. Woods attributes the increased difficulty in winning majors to rising standards among his rivals, who have aped his fitness regimes and now contend on equal terms. Improvements in equipment and ball technology have decreased his power advantage, and enhanced swing analysis from digital radar aids like TrackMan have allowed others to make the most of their gifts.
Woods is 37. Since returning to competition in 2010 after the carnal inferno of 2009 he has had to contend with injury as well as shame and has completely rebuilt his swing under the guru of the hour Sean Foley. He went more than two years without a win, missed the cut at the 2011 US PGA and briefly dropped out of the world top 50. Only in the past two seasons has he returned to form and only this year to anything like the command of a decade ago.
Yes the pressure is on next week, but the playing field is not what it was, and the major courses are bordering on pathological in set up, which you could argue introduces a degree of caprice to skew any definitive measurement of his game.
Last week at Oak Hill Graeme McDowell posted pictures of the rough on Twitter, suggesting another testing challenge. Woods was giving nothing away as he powered into the weekend at Bridgestone. "It's only two days. The weather is coming in. A lot of things can happen," he said on Friday. "But I had it going today."
The doubters will hold sway until he wins a major. It may not be next week. The Masters offers his best chance on a course that does not booby trap open space with pot bunkers and rough. But Woods heads to Oak Hill in form good enough to render his rivals also-rans. The East course in major mode is one step beyond, but momentum and history are with him. Six years ago he went from victory at Firestone to win a 13th major at Southern Hills in Oklahoma. You have been warned.
The birdies flow in another command performance
Tiger Woods followed up his monumental second-round display at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational with more fine golf at the start of day three.
The world No 1 equalled his career-best round of 61 at Firestone Country Club yesterday and started his third round with consecutive birdies to move to 15 under par for the tournament.
A string of five pars kept him well in control of the leaderboard, but his run of holes without a bogey ended at 37, when he missed a testing putt for par at the ninth.
He hardly let what passed for a setback get to him. He clawed the shot back at the 10th and when he claimed another birdie at the 13th he was 16 under for the tournament and eight shots clear of fellow American Jason Dufner, who was four under on the day through 15 holes.
Chris Wood, playing with Woods, was on his own in third place after a steady round that settled into a par fest after two birdies and a bogey in his first four holes.
Henrik Stenson was sharing fourth place with two Americans, Bill Haas and Keegan Bradley. The Swede had three birdies and two bogeys in his first 10 holes.
One shot further back was Miguel Angel Jimenez, the Spaniard finishing with a flurry of three birdies in a 65 for five under.
Three to watch
Lost this event in a play-off two years ago to Keegan Bradley. Was a leaderboard presence at The Open a fortnight ago and is on the front page in the group behind Tiger Woods at the WGC Bridgestone. Big-match temperament.
Runner-up at Muirfield and top 20 at the Masters and US Open. Opened with a 65 at the Bridgestone to show his game is simmering at an impressive peak. The Stenson that won the Players in 2009 is back.
The steak-munching Argentinian just won't go away. Few wade into majors without form like him. Twice a major champion, runner-up at the Masters and 11th at The Open
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