Batting Injuries, Chasing Legends: Tiger Woods Turns 40
Arnold Palmer won his last major when he was 34. Tom Watson’s final major came at age 33. Seve Ballesteros was only 31.
We all remember Tiger Woods’ epic win at the 2008 U.S. Open. We found out later he was playing with a meniscus tear and a fractured leg. Tiger Woods was just 32 years old that Father’s Day as he accepted his 3rd U.S. Open win.
Almost 8 years later, Tiger is on the mend from two different surgical procedures on his back in late 2015. His chase of two legendary records, Sam Snead’s 81 PGA Tour victories and Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships, are on temporary hold.
Speculation abounds whether Woods can overcome his self-inflicted wounds, both emotional and physical, and father time to catch Snead and Nicklaus.
With 79 PGA victories, Woods is only two tournament wins behind Snead. We all tend to forget that Woods won five times in 2013, including victories at Torrey Pines, Bay Hill and a dominant performance at Firestone highlighted by a second round 61.
Of course, we all remember how bad 2014 and 2015 were for Woods. Tiger was coming back from another physical setback in early 2015 and looked at times like a 12-handicapper, especially around the greens where a series of chili-dips and sculled wedges had golf analysts speculating that Woods had a case of the chip-yips. Tiger bounced back at Augusta, where he flashed his old short game skills and even played himself into semi-contention before finishing 17th place.
The truth is none of us know if Woods physical condition will allow him to play competitive golf at the highest levels anymore. Assuming he can, and again that’s a big assumption, the chances of winning four more majors – and tying Nicklaus – appear to be slim.
Golfers don’t win a lot of multiple majors after turning 40 years old. Mark O’Meara won two majors and Nicklaus won three (two at age 40 and one at 46) in their 40’s. The aforementioned Boros also won the 1963 U.S. Open at age 43 before his historic win in the 1968 PGA. Ben Hogan won three as a 40-year old in his magical 1953 season. And, if you go way back in the time machine to the 19th century, Old Tom Morris won three Open Championships in his 40’s.
The big question for Tiger, assuming he can regain his health, is will he need to develop a less taxing golf swing to reduce the torque he puts his body through during full driver and iron swings. Can he develop a more gentle swing?
Perhaps, through great medical work, Woods won’t have to make that decision.
The two majors that favor Woods’ game and age are the Masters and the Open Championship. The Masters has proven to yield low scores to players in their older years. In his 40’s, Ben Crenshaw played in the final group at the third round in the Masters. 48 year old Kenny Perry led the 2009 Masters by two shots with two holes to play before slumping at the finish and losing in a playoff to Angel Cabrera. Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer have finished high on the leaderboard. Nicklaus, of course, won his historic 6th green jacket at the age of 46. Nicklaus and Hogan shot low scores at Augusta National in their 50’s. Even though Augusta National has been dramatically lengthened in the past twenty years, it is still the kind of track that gives older players a chance.
Similarly and maybe even more so, is the Open Championship. The R&A isn’t obsessed with the lush green conditions that permeate American golf courses. Less water means hard, fast fairways and the additional rollout places less of a premium on distance. Tiger can hit fairway woods and even long irons on a number of these set-ups. If he does develop a less powerful and slower swing to protect his back, the Open Championship will penalize him less than any of the other major championships.
Plus, the Open Championship has been kind to golfers in their 40’s. Three of the last six champions (Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Darren Clarke) were all in their 40’s when they cradled the Claret Jug. Given the fact that guys in their 40’s have won this championship and two players (Norman and Watson) contended in their 50’s, a healthy Tiger Woods theoretically should have a dozen chances to win this title if his play returns the form he displayed in 2013.