Woods' major quest meets heightened competition

Tiger Woods of the U.S. speaks during a news conference after a practice round ahead of the British...

Tiger Woods of the U.S. speaks during a news conference after a practice round ahead of the British Open golf championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes, northern England July 17, 2012. (REUTERS)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:38 PM ET

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND - There have been 15 different winners of the past 15 major championships in golf.

None of the them has been Tiger Woods.

That probably pleases more than a few golf fans, those who were turned off by his serial infidelities.

Whatever.

Some of you are probably wondering why us media types would waste time or space on him, but the fact is Woods is a polarizing figure in the game, attracting huge numbers of both those who still love him or now loathe him, and his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors remains a narrative of historic proportions.

There was a time, not long ago, when it wouldn't have been out of the question to consider the 141st British Open as the tournament that afforded Woods the opportunity to tie or surpass Nicklaus' record.

But Woods has been stuck on 14 majors since winning the 2008 U.S. Open on a shredded left knee and dealing with a shredded reputation. His former coach, Hank Haney, wrote in his book, The Big Miss, that he figured Woods had to win a major this year to keep hope alive of surpassing the Golden Bear.

"To propel the chase forward, I believe Tiger has to get a major in 2012," Haney wrote. "Without one, his winless streak in Grand Slam events will stretch to 18, which will force him to feel he has to go faster at a time when age is slowing him down."

Woods' previous longest stretch without a major is 10 -- from the 1997 Masters to the 1999 PGA and again from the 2002 U.S. Open to the 2005 Masters, which coincided, for the most part, with swing changes.

He now has gone 16 majors without a win, though he missed four of those because of injury and again has been working on a different swing with coach Sean Foley. When asked if he was feeling any anxiety about when his next major win might come, Woods said Tuesday: "No, no. I just try to put myself there. I think that if I continue putting myself there enough times then I'll win major championships."

If not anxiety, impatience?

"No, not at all. First of all, I had to go through that whole process of just getting healthy again. Being banged up and missing major championships because of it ... wasn't a whole lot of fun. I think I missed four majors there just because I was injured. I figure if I'm healthy, then I can prepare properly for major championships and I can get myself there."

Haney did some interesting math.

Of the players who have won at least three majors, they won one out of three times when they were in serious contention. That means Woods would need to get in contention 15 times to get the five majors he needs to surpass Nicklaus. That's four years' worth of majors, bringing Woods to the cusp of 40 years of age.

Nicklaus won four of his majors after the age of 36 and one of those -- that miracle at the 1986 Masters at the age of 46 -- after the age of 40.

Woods will have to duplicate that to have a shot at Nicklaus' record.

Though Woods' conversion rate when in contention is a little better than one-in-three, he is running out of time.

The Woods question is just one of many compelling stories heading into the Open which gets under way Thursday. While many fans will focus on Woods and his quest for a 15th major, there are players facing their own pressures: World No. 1 Luke Donald is still looking for his first major as is No. 3 Lee Westwood.

When asked if he preferred to win a major or the next Ryder Cup -- at Medinah in Chicago at the end of September -- Westwood said Tuesday: "I prefer to win a major because I'm selfish," drawing some laughs. "I'd like to win the Ryder Cup, as well. But no, I haven't won a major yet and I'd like to win one or two or three."

In his typical sparring with the media, Woods refused to be specific about where he was in his swing progression with Foley, although the results this year have to be encouraging with three wins (although the gap between the good Tiger and the bad Tiger is now wide. An off-form performance for Woods used to mean a top-10 finish; since his first win this year at Bay Hill, he has tied for 40th twice and missed two cuts to go along with tie for 21st at the U.S. Open).

When asked where he was in the process, he replied: "Somewhere in it. Did that help you out?"

When pressed if he was closer to the end than the middle, he said: "You know, I don't know. When I'm all said and done with my career, I'll know. But right now I'm in it. I'm just trying to get better each and every day. And that's something that is the process, is that I'm working on my game, and I like the things that Sean and I are working on and they're starting to solidify."

Whether we will see a player dominate the way Woods did from 2005 to 2008 when he won six of 14 majors, ending with that U.S. Open win on a damaged leg, is highly doubtful given Woods' regression and the emergence of the next generation of players such as Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, each of whom has won his first major in the past couple of years.

Donald said it was hard to determine why so many players are in the mix now. "Obviously I think Tiger would admit that his form hasn't been as good over the past few years," Donald said. "He hasn't been as dominant in the majors as he was. And it probably also speaks to how good a player he was, that he was able to dominate. Even though there are some great players around right now, no one has really come through and started to win consistently at the majors.

"So I think that speaks for what an amazing run he went on and he's still continuing to try to do and just speaks to how difficult it is to win majors.

Woods said the fields are deeper now and to win a player needs to get hot at the right time.

"I think more guys now have a chance to win major championships than ever before and I think that will just continue to be that way," Woods said.

"And the cut is no longer 13, 14 shots (off the lead). It's sometimes under 10 shots between guys making the cut and the leader. So that goes to show you the depth of the field, that everything is getting a little bit closer."

Haney has to be among those who know Woods best, and we'll leave the last word to him on whether Woods can beat Nicklaus' record.

"The part of me that believes in his genius," Haney wrote, "still thinks he can do it."

THIS AND THAT

There will be a lot of talk this week at the 141st British Open about the 206 bunkers at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

"Well, you do feel a little bit claustrophobic on a lot of holes -- (the bunkers) are everywhere and they're very well positioned," said world No. 1 Luke Donald, who is looking for his first major title.

"I'm not sure it favours the longer hitter, especially, because some courses, some Open Championship courses, you have bunkers at 280 (yards off the tee) and past that you're OK. But here there's another one 20 yards further, there's another one 20 yards past that. There are not too many holes where if you can carry it a certain distance you get past them. They seem to be continually going along the holes.

"In that way I like it. I like that it just favours the guy who can hit it in the fairway."

MCILROY GOING SOLO

Rory McIlroy has had his ups and downs since winning the U.S. Open last year. After saying he had "taken his eye of the ball" (and maybe put it on girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, the tennis star), he spent the past two weeks at Royal County Down in his native Northern Ireland preparing for the Open. Wozniacki won't be around this week.

"Caroline's not here. We celebrated here (22nd) birthday last week and now she's busy practising for the Olympics," McIlroy told the Daily Express. "It's going to be a huge couple of weeks for us. It would be great if we both have something else to celebrate when we get back together."

MICKELSON KEEN ON PADRES

Phil Mickelson said he isn't buying into the San Diego Padres so he can give the manager or the players any tips. Mickelson is part of a syndicate which includes the O'Malley family that is poised to acquire the National League baseball team.

"It's not my forte to be involved in any operations," Mickelson said. "I'm just strictly a kind of silent partner who will talk with the O'Malley and Seidler families on how I can help the organization," said Mickelson, who has been ranked the seventh-richest athlete for 2012 with $47.8 million in income.

Mickelson recently sold a beach home for $2.7 million and has a house in Rancho Sante Fe, Calif., on the market for $7.1 million, according to reports.

Mickelson said he's interested in owning the Padres, in his hometown, "because I really like the people I'm involved with and I think they are just as competitive as I am. I'm excited about bringing something back to the community."

NOT PAR FOR THE COURSE

Royal Lytham is unique in that it is the only course in major championship golf that has a par-3 for its opener.

"It's unique, and I think it's pretty cool to have a par-3 opening hole," Mickelson said. "It's different than many courses that we see ... other than Westchester in the New York area (which opened with a par-3) where we don't play anymore."

Tiger Woods said it creates an unusual mind-set on the first tee.

"It is different, there's no doubt, because we have to be precise out of the gate and hit the ball a specific number," Woods said. "Normally it's an iron, hybrid, whatever, off the first tee, you can get it basically any distance you want, and you're setting yourself up for the second shot. But this is totally different.

"And, yeah, psychologically it is different because you have to be on your game right away. And you can't just hit a ball in the fairway any distance you want. You have to hit the ball a precise number and that is different than what we experience week in, week out."

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson

 


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