Majors are hard to win, even for Tiger Woods.
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After a disastrous week at Merion — where he finished a career-worst 13-over par — Woods has now entered the sixth year of a majors drought no one saw coming when he famously won No. 14 at Torrey Pines in 2008.
His next chance comes in a few weeks at the British Open.
Muirfield, though, is where Woods shot a career-worst 81 in wind and rain in 2002. After that, the year’s final major, the PGA Championship, will be held at Rochester’s Oak Hill, where in 2003 Woods shot what was then a career-worst 12-over par.
Not good omens for a man who will be 38 at the end of this year and remains five major wins short of the goal he set for himself as a boy: eclipsing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18.
(Woods' sore left elbow will keep him out of competition until the British Open. He said on his website that doctors found a strain and advised him to take a few weeks off for rest and treatment.)
Hank Haney, who coached Woods until their acrimonious breakup in 2010, isn’t surprised by his former star pupil’s struggles on golf’s biggest stages.
Although Woods has won four times on the PGA Tour this season and re-established himself as the game’s best player, Haney sees more smoke and mirrors than old-school domination.
“This year Tiger has won with his putter,” he said. “He was off to a start where this was his best year ever putting, but now he has leveled off. He finished first in putting in three wins and second in the other.”
Haney saw warning signs in Woods’ wins at Bay Hill and Doral, where he had two of the best putting performances of his career yet both times won by only two shots.
“A win is a win, but that formula is not really repeatable,” he said.
It’s certainly true that Woods was abysmal on the greens at Merion. He tied his career worst at a major with 128 putts, three-putting five times.
Interestingly, the last time Woods needed 128 putts, he finished runner-up at the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. At Merion, he was tied for 32nd and finished 12 strokes behind winner Justin Rose.
Haney’s other concern regarding Woods is what he sees as a disturbing lack of preparation for majors that began while the two worked together.
“Tiger doesn't have as good a chance of winning on courses that he doesn't know well,” he said. “He is a great greens rememberer, but if he hasn't played the course his greens reading won't be nearly as good.
“He struggled at TPC (Sawgrass) after they changed the greens and now he knows them, as an example. Watch next year at Doral with the new course; he will likely struggle.”
Haney said Woods needed to put in more time to learn the greens at Merion but didn’t.
“For whatever reason, Tiger doesn't prepare for majors as hard as he could,” he said. “He plays the course in a rushed way maybe once or twice before the tournament week, then in the tournament week Tiger has gotten into a routine of playing nine-hole practice rounds on some days.”
Although many have praised the work of Sean Foley in rebuilding Woods’ swing to be more consistent and accurate, Haney — perhaps not surprisingly — remains unconvinced Woods is back to his old ways.
“Tiger's ball striking statistically isn't as good as it was,” he said. “His greens-in-regulation statistic was always No. 1 or near that with both Butch (Harmon) and I; now he is 35th or something like that.”
Haney was particularly critical of Woods’ wedge game and bemoans the fact that he no longer works the ball into greens.
“Always hitting to the center of the green and working the ball to the pins on the edges gives any player a clear statistical advantage to an appropriate pin,” he said. “Tiger used to do this better than anyone, but now it is almost like he is playing the same game as everyone else and just trying to execute it better.”
Along those lines, Haney said that with golf’s talent pool as deep as it’s ever been, Woods can no longer expect to win a major with less than his best. And even his “A” game is not always going to be enough.
“His best is not necessarily better than everyone else anymore,” he said. “We saw that last year with Rory Mclroy.”
Mentally, Haney believes the quest for Nicklaus’ record has taken a toll on Woods.
“Pressure affects everyone, even Tiger Woods, and the pressure at majors that Tiger puts on himself is a factor and always has been,” he said. “Being the favorite in every major is a pressure that only Tiger faces. Trying to catch someone's record like Tiger is trying to do with Jack is a much different dynamic than when Jack was adding to his major win total.
“Tiger is having a real hard time winning the easiest major he is going to win — No. 15. No. 18 to tie Jack and 19 to beat Jack, those are going to be the hard ones.
“If he gets that far.”