If allowed a mulligan one year later, Paul Azinger would like to reassess an observation. That thing he said last year about “Tiger Woods being the lead story at every major until he quits.” Well, on the threshold of the 144th Open Championship at St. Andrews, Azinger concedes that isn’t the case.
Not with Jordan Spieth chasing the opportunity of getting three-quarters of the way to the Grand Slam. And not on the same day that World No. 1 Rory McIlroy announced that his sprained left ankle would keep him out of the lineup next week at the Old Course.
So even if you slot the continued comeback efforts of Woods into the next position, well, who would have ever thought we’d see the day when we’d move him that far down the list of topics? Which isn’t to say that Woods is an afterthought, because he most certainly isn’t. It’s just that from what we’ve seen in 2015 — the chili-dips to the scores in the 80s to the bogey-free round at the Greenbrier Classic last Sunday — leaves even the most astute observers shaking their heads.
“I’d say that for the first time ever with him, I have no idea what to expect,” Andy North said.
Azinger, North and Curtis Strange will be on hand at the Old Course as part of the ESPN team that will broadcast all four days of championship play. They possess the necessary perspective, too.
Strange played in the Open Championship 13 times, including 1990 and 1995 at the Old Course, and for years he held the course record of 62, later matched by Brian Davis.
Azinger, who nearly won the Open Championship in his debut in 1987, played in 10 other Opens, including three at St. Andrews: 1990, 1995 and 2000.
North played in four Opens, including 1990 at the Old Course.
All are major champions, have a true understanding of links and a deep appreciation for this championship. Factor in their long observance of the iconic Woods, and their thoughts during an ESPN conference call Wednesday resonate. On the one hand, North thinks this year’s Open is coming at the perfect time for Woods, who steamrolled to victories at the Old Course by eight strokes in 2000 and by five in 2005.
“Every single hole he has a picture of good things happening,” North said. “He has good shots in his mind to fall back on.”
But the frustrating thing these days with Woods, a 79-time victor on Tour who hasn’t won in nearly two years, is that there is a flip side that is painted gray. North wasn’t getting overly giddy about the T-32 that Woods posted last week at the Greenbrier, even if it did include his first bogey-free round in nearly two years. Woods’ strokes-gained-putting stat was a minus-.251, and whatever hope he has for a good week at St. Andrews “comes down to one thing: how he putts,” North said.
Consistently, Azinger has questioned Woods’ seemingly endless obsession with mechanics, with swing-coach switches and changing what always worked beautifully.
“He’s got to get out of the lab and onto the golf course,” Azinger said. “He doesn’t need people telling him what to do; he needs someone to remind him to go out and just play.”
Picking up on that, Strange agreed with Azinger’s assessment that Woods needs to remind himself to “drive it, wedge it, putt it.” The thing is, “can he believe he can do it?” Strange said.
That, of course, is at the heart of this mystery, how the greatest player of his generation — and perhaps in history — has lost his confidence and forgotten how to repeat his golf swing near-flawlessly time after time after time.
“Nothing would surprise me,” Strange said. “I root for him. It’s better for the game if (he plays well), but he’s got to make this turnaround.”
courtesy of Jim McCabe (Golfweek.com)