Tiger Woods heads for Merion with Jack Nicklaus back in his sights

After Players victory Tiger is heavy favourite to win a 15th major at the US Open next month

Sawgrass

Aspiring golfers across America set forth at 22 different courses on Monday to pursue their dreams of qualifying for next month’s US Open in Philadelphia. The message coming out of Sawgrass was not to bother. Victory at Merion has already been assigned to Tiger Woods.

After PGA Tour win No 78 at the Players Championship on Sunday, his fourth this year in six stroke-play events in the United States, none was bothering to ask if Woods was back. The aura of 2000-2001 when he first took the richest purse in golf as well as ownership of all four majors, has  settled once more over the golfing landscape.

Sergio Garcia thought he had Woods rattled across the weekend, giving their career-long discord a reboot on Sunday morning with a remarkably frank address before the final round in which he admitted their mutual dislike of each other. After drawing alongside Woods at the top of the leaderboard with a birdie at the 16th hole, Garcia muscled on to the tee at the island 17th like Spartacus entering the amphitheatre in Capua.  Only on this occasion it was he thrown to lions.

Garcia blamed over-confidence after plonking successive tee shots into the lake surrounding the green. After half a dozen routings at the hands of Woods across previous championship weekends stretching back to their first duel at Medinah in 1999, it is fair to say that account did not find much traction around Sawgrass. Woods, informed by the masses at the 18th tee of Garcia’s demise, duly split the fairway en route to the par that would give him victory by two shots.

If anything, this latest flowering of Woods domination is even more worrying for his rivals since this is an era when deeper fields are yielding a greater spread of winners. And no field is deeper than the Players. Yes he was level with Garcia going to the last with a cluster of players just two shots back, which might suggest they were on the same page, but for the third time in four events his was the name on the trophy.

This does not happen by accident. No golfer in history closes out like him. In 300 PGA Tour events he has a strike rate of one win in four. We are not yet in the third week of May and he has four gold medals around his neck. His 37th-place finish at the Honda Classic is already a museum piece. After that his worst result is fourth at the Masters, where outcomes might have been different had he not rebounded into Rae’s Creek off the flag stick at the 15th on the Friday.

Woods has yet to set foot on Merion, a shorter, more traditional golf course than the monsters that have grown to counter the long-hitting generation that he inspired. It’s fiddly nature is thought to be particularly suited to golfers like Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell, anti-bombers adept at plotting their way through a challenge. This is surely an insult to Woods. He could win anywhere with only knitting needles in his bag.

Sawgrass is tricky enough. Woods barely touched his driver. Indeed, on the par-five ninth on Sunday he went with an iron off the tee. They have not built the course that can bring him down when he is striking the ball as well as he is in this phase of his career. Merion will not be any harder for him than for the next man, and the next man does not have the mental wherewithal to cope that Woods has. Garcia just makes him laugh.

While we chatter on about that 15th major he needs to re-ignite the chase for Jack Nicklaus’s magic number of 18, all he thinks about is the next match. Asked if he was surprised at the scale of his present achievements, Woods replied: “No.  I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done. But I’m not.” So where does this rank, Tiger, in the grand scheme of things? “I’m not looking at it like that. I’m just trying to get better, and I feel like I’m getting better as the year’s going on, which is nice.” The man who did most to claim the high ground when Woods was climbing off the post sex-scandal deck turned 24 a week ago. When Rory McIlroy won his first major at the US Open two years ago an injured Woods was not in the field. Back then few thought Woods was coming back in a meaningful way and even if he did, the McIlroy generation were not burned by the Woods effect of a decade before and carried no scars. Now they understand a little more of what their forebears went through.

Four birdies in his closing six holes on Sunday, including a hat-trick from the 15th, left McIlroy joint eighth and with a sense of what might have been after opening with a 66. The improvements tee-to-green are self evident, but for the second tournament in succession he could find no rhythm on the dance floor.

McIlroy returns home this week ahead of the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth next week, where he needs only to get the putter working to find his Tiger feet.

“I struggled a little bit reading them, and I got a bit indecisive,” McIlroy said. “I holed some nice ones coming in today.  But over the course of the week, if you keep seeing putts miss, it’s hard to visualise them going in the hole.”

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