Five things I learned at the British Open about Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Links Golf and Tom Watson
1. Rory’s Good Is Better Than Anyone Else’s Good
The No. 1 takeaway from the 2014 British Open is that when Rory McIlroy is on, there’s no one else who can compete with him right now. In that sense, he’s very similar to Tiger Woods in 2000 in that when Tiger was on, no one could keep up with him either. The difference is that Rory has a level of inconsistency that shows up a lot more than his fans would like. The 2000-era Tiger played his best game much more often than Rory does. The key for Rory going forward is to keep his good as good as it is and see how close he can get his “bad” game to his good game. Right now Rory’s golf game is a lot closer to Phil Mickelson than Tiger Woods. He’s still got some way to go to develop the consistancy of concentration and intensity of focus to be a force every time he plays. When that happens, look out!
2. Tiger Is Back Physically But Has a Lot of Work to Do
I saw nothing at the British Open to believe that Tiger Woods’ back was in any way a detriment to him playing four days of competitive golf. That’s great news. The bad news is that his golf isn’t where it needs to be, and it might not be for a while. Tiger has some problems in his game that he needs to address. Specifically, he needs to drive the ball better. He can’t continue to hit irons off the tee while Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott are hitting drivers. Just think of Tiger as a former 98 mph-fastball flamethrowing pitcher who is now 38 years old. When that pitcher is 24, he can throw a 98 mph fastball and that’s pretty much all he needs. When he gets older, he has to learn how to pitch. He can’t be a flamethrower anymore but he can’t give up on the fastball either. Tiger needs to develop the golf equivalent of the 92 mph fastball that paints the corner if he wants to be successful. Everybody has to make allowances for age and Tiger is no different. Once he has confidence back in his driver that will help him get his competitive and emotional stability back. Tiger is justly famous for how he prepares and focuses for every shot and every round he plays. With swing changes, injury rehab and time for his family, Tiger is facing a time crunch. Add in the fact that as you get older, you need to put in more time -- not less-- just to maintain your skills. Time management will be very important for him going forward.
3. Sergio Garcia Has Finally Arrived
When Sergio first came on the scene as a 19-year-old at Medinah at the 1999 PGA Championship, I was walking with his group. I was there when he hit the shot from behind the tree on 16 and when he made the putt on 17 and looked back at Tiger. We all thought, “Wow! Here’s the next great challenger.” Sergio’s ball-striking has always been extraordinary, but his weaknesses -- namely his putting and his difficulty maintaining competitive emotional control -- have kept him from completely fulfilling the promise of Medinah. This week, however, at the British Open proved to me that Sergio has finally arrived. He was a complete golfer at Royal Liverpool. His ball-striking was first-rate and his putting is the best it’s ever been. But the real revelation was his emotional control on Sunday. I’m convinced the best of Sergio is yet to come because two of his weaknesses are gone.
4. Links Golf Is the Game’s Best Test
I used to think that there was more luck involved in links golf and that lucky bounces and bad breaks played an outsized role in who won, but now I’m convinced more than ever that links golf is the best form of golf for revealing who is striking their ball and controlling their ball the best. The vagaries in links golf -- the weather, the bounces -- expose those players who are not hitting it solidly, not thinking clearly and not controlling their emotions. Sure, the scores can be lower at the British Open than the other major championships but that is because these Open courses are prepared and designed to handle play when the wind is blowing 30 mph or 40 mph. In order to play in more extreme weather, then the courses are going to play a lot easier when those conditions aren’t there. By contrast, TPC Sawgrass would be unplayable with 40 mph winds. When Rory wins a British Open at 17-under in relatively gentle conditions, that doesn’t mean Royal Liverpool is easy, just that it’s built to handle a much broader conditions than our stateside courses and the scores will always be weather-dependent.
5. If You Want to Play Well For a Long Time, You Need a Long Swing
At age 64, Tom Watson finished the British Open at 1-over and ahead of a lot of young American players who will be playing for him at the Ryder Cup. Watson is proof that links golf can be played by anyone who can hit the ball well. He’s also a great model for all senior players. If you want to play well as you get older -- as we all do -- you need to make sure you can still turn and try to keep your swing longer. It's been my observation over the years that shorter, quicker, more explosive swings don’t have the longevity of a longer, more rhythmic and flowing swing. I can’t wait to see what Watson will do in his final Open next year at St. Andrews.