London: For the first time in nearly four years, Tiger Woods is without a major title to defend but, almost inevitably, will go into next week’s British Open as the most fancied contender.
Barely a week ago that might not have been the case. The world No. 1 failed to contend in the first two majors of the season and had not finished in the top three in his last five PGA Tour starts.
But Woods, who has dramatically re-written scripts and redefined golf history since turning professional in 1996, changed all that with his superb wire-to-wire victory at the Western Open outside Chicago on Sunday.
The 27-year-old American, inwardly stung by media talk of a ‘Tiger slump’, fired a final-round 69 to win by five shots and tie the tournament record of 21-under-par 267 for 72 holes. He clinched the 38th PGA Tour title of his career, and his fourth victory of 2003 in 11 starts.
“It’s certainly a shot of confidence, there’s no doubt about it,” said Woods, after securing his third Western Open title. “Any time you win you’ve got to feel pretty good about it.
“The things I’ve been working on are starting to come together, and they came together this week more so than they did at Westchester (for last month’s Buick Classic). Hopefully they’ll come together more so at the British Open.”
Although Woods vaulted up the leaderboard with 66s in the third round of this year’s US Masters and round two of last month’s US Open, he failed to contend on the last day.
He tied for 15th at Augusta National and 20th at Olympia Fields, having not enjoyed optimum preparation for either tournament following knee surgery last December.
Usually, the meticulous Woods would have played 12 tournaments before the US Open; this season, he managed only eight.
At Royal St George’s on the south-east coast of England, he will be bidding for the ninth major of his career and a second Claret Jug following his eight-stroke triumph at St Andrews three years ago.
But, remarkable though Woods has been in so many majors, he will have to hope for a reasonable measure of good fortune.
Of the four majors, the British Open is the most likely to be affected by the vagaries of the weather and by the bounce of the ball — whether favourable or unfavourable — on the undulating links course fairways.
Twelve months ago, Woods was on track for a unique calendar Grand Slam of the four professional majors after opening scores of 70 and 68 at Muirfield.
But his tilt at yet another slice of golfing history was scuppered by driving wind and rain on the Saturday as he ballooned to a 10-over-par 81 — the worst round of his professional career.
Twice US Open champion Ernie Els ultimately took full advantage, although he had to survive a roller-coaster ride on the last day before winning his first British Open in a four-way playoff.
Els will be bidding next week to become the first player since Tom Watson (in 1983) to win consecutive British Open crowns and will have happy memories of his first visit to Royal St George’s in 1993, when he tied for sixth.
While Woods and Els are the most likely contenders, next week’s British Open has a more-than-usual ‘open’ look about it. Royal St George’s provides a notoriously tough six-hole finish and the par-71 layout places accuracy at a premium.
Expect, therefore, straight-hitters like US Masters champion Mike Weir, US Open winner Jim Furyk, 2001 US PGA champion David Toms and Irishman Padraig Harrington all to be in the mix come Sunday.