Tiger Woods has two big dates in Britain this year. He managed to keep the first despite returning from back surgery only last month but his lowly finish at The Open gives us few clues about whether he will be back for the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in September.
Woods was out early on Sunday and a 75, his third successive over-par score after an opening 69, left him at six over par, 24 strokes higher than his winning score in 2006. By finishing in 69th place, Woods recorded his worst-ever finish in The Open, except for 2009 when he missed the cut. He finished tied for 68th on his debut as an amateur in 1995.
On his 18th appearance only three players finished below the three-time winner, though they included Martin Kaymer, the reigning US Open champion, which only goes to how fickle form can be even for elite golfers.
Expectations for Woods were a little lower than for Kaymer, except in the American’s own mind. At his pre-tournament press conference he might have implied that anything other than a victory would be unacceptable, but having sat on the sidelines for three months and missed the cut at his only warm-up event, little more could be anticipated.
Woods admitted as much after a final round that included his third double-bogey of the week, to go with two triples. “I got four rounds in,” he said. “Unfortunately I didn’t play very well today.”
He was expecting to be rusty but was hoping his links know-how would get him round safely. “I know how to grind it out on these courses and the shots you need,” he said, “so I thought I could get round. But I made too many mistakes with the doubles and triples.”
He added: “I’ve got more game-time under my belt but obviously there’s a lot of things I need to work on. I’m still building but I’m getting stronger and faster, which is great.”
Woods needs to get the explosiveness back in his game quickly if he wants to play in the Ryder Cup. There should be a rule that says if you cannot beat your captain, you don’t get a wild-card pick. Fortunately for Woods, there is not.
Tom Watson was playing five groups ahead of his fellow Stanford graduate and produced a gem of a round for a 68 to finish at one over par. “That was a good day,” said the 64-year-old. “I enjoyed that.”
It might have been Watson’s last day in the sun at The Open but his exemption has been extended for one more year so the five-time champion can bow out at St Andrews in 12 months time. With the spring in his step as he marched up the 18th fairway on Sunday to a small but heart-felt reception, he looked like he could go on for another 12 years. “It was fun to finish with a birdie,” he said, “a nice way to finish and get ready for the next tournament.”
This week Watson is down at Royal Porthcawl for the Senior Open Championship, which he has also won three times. It is the first time Watson has played in Wales, whereas he is considered a legend in Scotland. It is north of the border where he will captain America in September but the question remains whether Woods, or indeed Phil Mickelson, will be among those he leads into battle.
Beating Woods by seven strokes on Sunday will have no bearing. “It’s just one day, a snap-shot,” Watson said. “It’s not a big deal.” But if Woods does not qualify for the FedEx Cup series in America next month he may not have played enough to be considered for a pick. “It’s not a mandatory thing but it would make it tougher for me to pick him if he is not playing,” Watson said.
“If Phil or Tiger don’t make it on the standings I’ve got some real thinking to do,” Watson added. “Everybody is thinking that I’m going to pick them automatically. I can assure you that I’m not going to pick them automatically. I said about Tiger that I’ll pick him if he’s playing well and he’s in good health. And Phil is the same way. But if they are playing well, how can you not pick those two.”
Watson said it was too soon to talk to Woods about his game but he will pick up the phone in due course. Woods is due to tee up next at the World Championship event in Akron and then at the US PGA Championship.
Asked if he would find tournaments outside America to play in if he does not make the FedEx play-offs, Woods simply said: “I’d like to win the next two tournaments. That would take care of it.”
If he believes it, anything is possible for Tiger. Just not on his return to Hoylake.