Ed. note: Over seven days GOLF.com is rolling out seven bold takes for 2017. Here’s the first installment by Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger.
My BP17 (the industry term for one’s Bold Prediction for 2017) is that Tiger Woods will play 288 holes of major-championship golf in the new year. You may say that is a modest goal. It is something he used to routinely do in his prime. But if we have learned anything from Woods over the years it is the wisdom of one of his favorite pet phrases, baby steps. Woods is taking baby steps back into competitive golf again. The last time he competed in all four rounds of each of the four majors was in 2013. Since 2007, he has only done it three times. This year, it says here, will be No. 4.
It is entirely possible that one or more of the majors will be decided in a playoff, that it will take more than 72 holes to determine a champion. I don’t see Woods, at age 41, in a playoff for any of the four major professional titles. That’s asking too much.
The Masters, which Woods has won four times but not since 2005, has a sudden-death playoff. The U.S. Open, played next year at Erin Hills, a public course in rural Wisconsin, has an 18-hole Monday playoff. (Woods has won three U.S. Opens, all on public courses, the last of them at Torrey Pines in 2008.) The British Open, played next year at Royal Birkdale, has a four-hole aggregate score playoff format. (Woods won the most recent of his three Opens in 2006 at Hoylake, down the beach from Birkdale.) The PGA Championship, which uses a three-hole aggregate playoff, will be held at Quail Hollow, in Charlotte. Woods last won at PGA in 2007.
By virtue of his status as a former champion in each of the majors, Woods is the field for all four of them. So that’s good. Good for Woods and good for the millions of people who like to watch him play golf. In 2017, they will watch him play golf.
But what people really like to do is watch Woods contend and win majors. That’s asking too much for Christmas and the 2017 golf year. My bold prediction here is that he will have a top-10 finish at the Masters, because he knows and understands Augusta National so well. Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, Bernhard Langer and Jack Nicklaus showed how valuable experience is at Augusta National beyond the age of 40.
You might be tempted to say that a top-10 finish is far too modest a goal (or too tepid a take), but I believe it would be a significant achievement. Woods has not made all manner of meaningful short putts in three years, and I think that is asking too much, too early in this latest comeback. To win at Augusta, or even contend late into Sunday, you have to putt brilliantly.
I could see Woods having a top-10 finish at Birkdale as well. The Birkdale greens, like all Open greens, are not extreme in either their slope or their speed, which takes some of the emphasis off putting. All links golf requires a wide range of shotmaking, and Woods, even in this return-to-golf period, knows how to play more shots than anybody in the game. Open weather can be fickle and unpredictable over the course of any single day, and if Woods gets lucky with the Thursday-Friday weather it would be conceivable to see him near the top of the leaderboard through 36 holes.
Woods was one shot off the lead at Birkdale in the ’98 Open, played a poor third round (77) and a brilliant final round (66) and finished a shot behind the winner, his friend Mark O’Meara. The last time the Open was at Birkdale, in 2008, Woods was not in the field while recovering from knee surgery.
But even if Woods was near the lead through two rounds next year at Birkdale, to ask him to keep it going through the weekend is a tall order, this early in his comeback tour.
Erin Hills and Quail Hollow are both staging majors for the first time, although Woods won the Wachovia Championship at Quail Hollow in May 2007. The August weather for the PGA Championship will likely be far more humid and hot, and the course setup will likely be far more demanding. Plus, the field for the PGA Championship is about as deep and strong as any in golf, along with the Players. You have two play two rounds of solid golf just to make the cut at a PGA Championship. (Last year at Baltusrol the cut was three-over 143.) Playing four rounds at Quail Hollow will be an achievement.
You could say the same of Erin Hills. The last time the U.S. Open was played at a largely unknown and relatively new course was at Chambers Bay in 2015. That was where Woods shot 80-76. Woods is very unlikely to shoot scores like that again, but the U.S. Open also demands straight driving more than the other three majors, which has been an area of struggle for Woods for years. To make the cut there would be an achievement.
As would making the cut in all four majors in 2017, which would set Woods up well for 2018 and his ongoing quest for his 15th major championship. At the end of 2004, Woods won the Target World Challenge. He was making swing changes and dealing with various health issues through the years. “I had to take baby steps all year,” Woods said in victory. “I was working in the right direction.”
It’s true. The whole thing, it’s a process. It really is. Making all four cuts in the four majors in 2017 would be a significant step for Woods. I think he’ll do it.