Par-70 layouts have kept Tiger Woods in check at major championships
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Tiger Woods has won six of the last 10 major championships, and because of that dominance, winning a Grand Slam tournament never has been so difficult for the rest of professional golf. He has been a one-man roadblock.
Yet there could be hope for other leading men. And now. That’s because Woods as a pro never has won a major in eight tries on par-70 courses. Only twice has he finished better than 10th.
The 0-for-8 statistic, perhaps the only glaring negative on his remarkable record, is of current relevance because next week’s U.S. Open will be contested at a par-70 venue, Bethpage State Park’s 7,214-yard Black Course. The Masters champion will attempt to add the second leg of the Grand Slam in pursuit of becoming the first player to win all four major championships in the same calendar year.
“Maybe I just haven’t played well those weeks,” Woods said of the par-70 majors. “You can’t play well in every single major, and sometimes you just don’t have it that week.”
Four of the eight misses have come on tight, heavily roughed U.S. Open layouts, and three were on similar setups at the PGA Championship. Five of them came in 1997-98, when Woods, at ages 21-22, reconstructed his swing after his 12-stroke romp at the ’97 Masters. Since then, he has become more of a complete player.
Of course, Woods has shown he can dominate on a par 70. Witness World Golf Championships – NEC Invitational victories the last three years at Firestone, and top 12s in all six of his Byron Nelson Classics. But his 0-for-8 streak in par-70 majors does hearten the competition.
“Yeah, that’s a little positive,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, often a bridesmaid to Woods. “Thanks for the information.”
“It gives other people more hope,” said 1987 Open champion Scott Simpson.
“Yes, it does,” Loren Roberts, 1994 Open runner-up, said with a smile.
There are a few reasons why a par-70 course is an equalizer, why Woods has not yet won a major on one. Foremost is the fact that a par 70 has two fewer par 5s than a par 72. That takes away his strength of length. That’s eight fewer par 5s over four rounds. That’s eight fewer birdie opportunities for a bomber. That’s a lot, especially if the two long holes on a par 70 are not reachable in two. And it’s in stark contrast to the Masters’ Augusta National, a perfect venue for Woods in that he can reach all four par 5s.
“It’s an easy deduction,” said Hall of Famer Tom Watson, the 1982 Open winner. “When there are eight fewer par 5s he can dominate, it makes it tougher for Tiger to win.”
“It’s an interesting stat (0-for-8), but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Nick Price, winner of three majors. “If you want to make a golf course more difficult, make the par 5s out of reach. That certainly levels up the playing field.”
“Now he’s playing the same course as everybody else instead of there being par 5s for everybody else and par 4s for him,” he said. “But I don’t think he’ll go 0-for-forever because he’s such a good player.”
The numbers scream out Woods’ advantage on long holes. He has led the PGA Tour in par-5 birdie percentage in each of his five full seasons and is first again this year. Since turning pro in August 1996, he had made birdie (or better) on 811 of 1,526 par 5s through the Memorial Tournament. That’s a success rate of 53.1 percent.
“If there were 18 par 5s and a par 90, sure he’d have an advantage,” said Memorial champion Jim Furyk, who has 10 top 10s in the majors. “There are still some older, shorter courses on Tour he doesn’t play, and I don’t blame him. But I don’t think there is a course that doesn’t suit his game. He doesn’t have many weaknesses.”
The last three years, Woods’ par-5 birdie percentage has been 54 percent or better. That means about nine strokes under par on 16 par 5s alone over four rounds on a par-72 track. It also means he’s likely to make four to five fewer birdies for the week on a par 70.
“It’s like playing a zone against a big man in basketball,” two-time Open champion Lee Janzen said of Woods. “You’re not going to stop him, you just have to slow him down. There has never been a more complete player, but the fact he hasn’t won on a par-70 course is because he has two fewer par 5s. It helps bring players closer to him. It doesn’t get simpler than that.”
“He just crushes the par 5s,” said Sergio Garcia, a young Woods pursuer. “If he doesn’t hit the green in two, he finds a way to make birdie. He usually doesn’t win as many tournaments where there aren’t four par 5s. It closes it up for everybody else.”
Garcia is right about Woods’ short-game skill. Though known more for his long game, Woods was the Tour’s best from close in last year. He led the scrambling category by getting up-and-down for par or better 69.8 percent of the time in 2001.
It follows that such a short-game wizard’s skills are diminished on Open or PGA setups where high, thick rough around the greens prohibits creative chipping and pitching.
“The great equalizer at an Open is having no areas to chip from; the short game is obsoleted,” said Phil Mickelson. “On firmer, contoured greens, if you’re in the rough, you can’t get up and down.”
Tight Open courses, too, favor accuracy more than length. Unlike the Masters, that brings numerous straight but shorter hitters into contention. The list of winners says as much, in the names of Hale Irwin, David Graham, Curtis Strange, Andy North, Corey Pavin, Simpson and the sneaky-long Janzen, among others. High rough flanks fairways. Open fairways sometime bottleneck at 280 yards, which may make longer hitters tee off with a 3-wood or iron.
“It takes the driver out of your hands,” Mickelson said. “I feel the U.S. Open should test every facet of a player’s game, but I’ve only seen it a couple times. At too many U.S. Opens, you hit an iron off the tee and try to two-putt from 40 feet.”
“Anytime you take length away,” PGA champion David Toms said, “it brings more people in.”
Long hitters also have been held back by numerous doglegs at par-70 Opens, such as in 1998 at the Olympic Club and last year at Southern Hills. Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie, to name two, didn’t even carry a driver for at least one round at Olympic.
“There was no advantage to length last year at Southern Hills because of all the doglegs,” said Roberts, one of the Tour’s shortest hitters but best putters. “Everybody drove it in the same area.”
But Bethpage isn’t Southern Hills. Roberts played it last fall and says power players will love the place.
“There are only two or three doglegs that take the driver out of your hands, and the two par 5s (517 and 554 yards) are reachable,” Roberts said. “So if there’s ever an Open for guys who hit it long, it’ll be this one because of the lack of doglegs. They can bomb it straight away.”
That, of course, is wonderful news for Woods. It’s one reason the 0-for-8 is in serious jeopardy. That and the fact he is in form and knows how to rip an Open course apart. Only two years ago he shot a record 12 under par and dusted the field by an unprecedented 15 strokes at par-71 Pebble Beach.
“I have always understood how to play a U.S. Open and what to do,” Woods said. “It just didn’t look like that because I didn’t hit the shots where I wanted to put it. You have to play well that week from tee to green. If you are not striking the ball well, then you are not going to have a chance to win. And luck has a huge role. Marginal shots need some luck.”