When Tiger Woods wasn't fist-pumping his way through the field at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February, he was taking an unplayable lie in the cacti; or being driven back to the tee to reload after pumping his first drive O.B.; or bloodying the head of a hapless old marshal with a wayward tee ball.
The Great One's game has always been eye-popping, but now it's peculiar, too. Nicklaus never won like this. Is Woods so much better than everyone else that being a spray hitter simply doesn't matter? Most of the time, it seems the answer is yes. He found less than half the fairways at the Buick Invitational in January and won by eight.
"Somebody said to me, 'Geez, how would Ben Hogan have felt if he drove it that way?'" said Bob Rosburg, the winner of the 1959 PGA and former ABC announcer. "I said he'd have probably quit the game."
Woods's success despite his erratic play off the tee brings up several questions. Is something wrong with modern course designs? Is he somehow tarnishing and burnishing his legend at the same time? First and foremost, though, it begs the question of whether he can cop his fifth consecutive PGA Tour win at this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. History says it will be tough.
When Woods was coached by Butch Harmon, and consistently hitting 65-70% of the fairways, he owned Bay Hill, hoisting the trophy four straight times from 2000 to 2003. But in March of 2004, he began tweaking his swing with his new coach, Hank Haney, who espoused a flatter action that created an unintended byproduct — impaired driving. That year he went under the 60% mark, to 56.1% of fairways hit, 182nd out of 196 players on tour. Not surprisingly, he didn't win Bay Hill in 2004, and he hasn't since. The low point came on Sunday last year, when Woods chipped out of the rough on 18 only to hit his third in the water on the way to a triple-bogey 7. He signed for a 76 (and a tie for 22nd place) and left the course without comment.
"Even a player as strong as Tiger Woods, unless he catches a good lie in the rough, he's going to have trouble hitting the green from more than 100 yards," says Roy Saunders, vice president of the Bay Hill Club. "We grow our roughs up and top them at four inches, thick and deep. Our goal is to bring the course as close to major championship conditions as possible."
Palmer's tournament is the exception to the rule, one of the only places on Tour where inaccuracy off the tee is still a very serious handicap. (Jack Nicklaus's Memorial is another, but more on that later.)
The stats are telling: Through the first two months of 2008, Woods was two-for-two on the PGA Tour, where he was hitting 48% of the fairways (194th out of 198 players), and one-for-one on the European tour after hitting 55% in Dubai.
Hold on, you say. That's too small a sample size. And it is. But those three weeks are the continuation of a long trend.
Woods hit 59.83% of fairways 2007 (152nd on Tour), when he won seven times, including the PGA; 60.71% in 2006 (139th on Tour), when he won eight times, including two majors; and 54.6% in 2005 (tied for 188th), when he won six times, including two majors.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Woods said when asked about his driving after a particularly erratic opening round at this year's Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, where he had nevertheless shot 67. "I was asking Stevie the same thing: Do you see anything? I really couldn't tell you. I had a low-left ball or a spinny, high-right. It's kind of hard to aim when you've got both of those things going."
But not hard to win, apparently — not if you're Tiger.
"The way to combat it, in my opinion, is trees," Mark O'Meara said recently. "They keep taking these trees out, but trees are the equalizer. These kids are so strong they can play out of the rough, but you put trees in, big trees, all along the sides of the fairways, and make the course faster? They can't hit it through a tree."
At Muirfield Village Golf Club, the Jack Nicklaus and Desmond Muirhead design that hosts the Memorial in late May, trees are everywhere. Water also comes into play on 11 holes. (See satellite photos.)
Precision off the tee is paramount at Muirfield; not surprisingly, last year's winner of the Memorial, K.J. Choi, is considered one of the Tour's most automatic drivers. Woods tied for 15th place, and his decline at Muirfield looks a lot like Bay Hill.
When he was coached by Harmon, and hitting almost three out of every four fairways, Woods couldn't stop winning the Memorial. He won in 1999, a season when he hit 71.3% of all fairways. He repeated in 2000 (71.2%) and three-peated in 2001, despite having dipped to 65.5%. He hasn't won there since.
"Nicklaus was a lot better driver," Rosburg says. (The PGA Tour did not keep statistics for fairways hit in Nicklaus's prime.) "Tiger is an amazing man, so much strength. Hogan thought if you couldn't drive the ball, then you weren't much of a player, but Tiger is going to end up being maybe the best ever, certainly the best around the greens now, and the best putter we've ever seen."
Woods may or may not win again at Muirfield, but as O'Meara suggested, that type of course is on its way out, anyway. Cutting down trees gives courses a wide-open, links feel, and tree roots can rob putting greens of precious water.
Oakmont Country Club was shorn of about 4,000 trees between the 1994 U.S. Open and the 2007 Open and was almost unrecognizable. The result: Woods missed winning his first U.S. Open since 2002 by the roll of a ball. Chambers Bay, the new course in leafy Washington State that will host the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2015 U.S. Open, has but a single tree. Torrey Pines, which will host the Open this June, has trees, but not as many as you might think given the course's name.
Meanwhile, courses are getting longer than ever, and big, broad-shouldered courses help Woods further separate himself from the field, since he is a peerless long-iron player. (Again, Torrey Pines is a prime example.)
By capitalizing on opportunities at courses with benign rough (Torrey, six wins), no trees (St. Andrews, two British Opens) and a pleasing combination of few trees and manageable rough (Doral, three wins in the last three years), Woods keeps pressing forward. He is moving ever closer to breaking golf's most hallowed record, Jack's 18 career majors, and, while he's at it, Sam Snead's 82 career wins.
His below-average driving statistics will be forgotten, and if he can start winning again at courses like Bay Hill and Muirfield, maybe they should be. It's possible that Woods has yet again moved into another dimension, where driving the ball accurately really isn't all that important.
Yes, he's benefited from modern equipment and course setups, but he has also made himself into the strongest and most skilled star in the game. Only Tiger Woods could dominate with 13 good clubs and a stick of dynamite, and he could do it again this week. As Rosburg says, "It's a different way of winning."