OAKMONT, Pa. — Times have changed. Tiger Woods sometimes looks like a mere mortal — Thursday and Friday of this week, for instance. Saturday, however, he was the Tiger of old. He hit 17 of 18 greens on the toughest Open course in the rotation and shot 69, and it could’ve been much lower.
Woods is two shots behind the young Australian Aaron Baddeley. In at least a half dozen previous majors, I’ve found myself writing, “It’s over, Tiger wins again.” Sometimes I wrote it after the opening 18. I was often correct.
It’s different now. Woods isn’t automatic. I still wouldn’t bet 10 cents against him Sunday. You say Tiger has never won a major coming from behind in 28 tries? Do you seriously think Woods can’t make up two shots on Baddeley? Or anyone else?
Tiger’s swing on Sunday was a work of art that we were lucky to behold. Nick Dougherty, the long-forgotten first-round leader, played with Woods.
“If he’d putted as well as I did, he would have shot six under,” Dougherty said. “Tee to green, he was phenomenal. He was just brilliant. He played far better than 69 — 66, maximum. If he plays like that and makes some putts, no one will catch him.”
So here’s the call: Tiger wins his 13th major. But it’s not over, so just for fun, who is actually capable of defeating Mr. Woods and delaying his inevitable march on Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional majors? It’s a short list, and I don’t think it will happen, but here are some names anyway:
1. He’s got the goods: That would be Badds, as in Baddeley. It’s not so important that he has the lead. Two shots is nothing at Oakmont; every hole is a potential double bogey. But Badds showed me something on the back nine Saturday. He was two over on the front nine before pouring in four birdies on the back, including the capper at the 18th, a nice 20-foot putt.
You need every stroke if you’re going to beat Woods, but Nick O’Hern proved at the match play event in Tucson that Tiger is beatable over 18 holes. If Baddeley can pull it off, he would prove the point that Jim Furyk made on Saturday.
“Geoff Ogilvy had never won a major before last year, either,” Furyk said, “and he was clutch down the stretch at Winged Foot.”
Why he will: Badds has always been a great putter. Now he has developed a Steve Elkington-like swing to go with it. That’s a dangerous combination. In the SI Golf Plus Masters preview, an anonymous tour pro touted Badds as a future superstar and picked him to win. OK, he was early. Also, Badds has Pete Bender, one of the smartest and best caddies ever to lift a bag. He may save Badds the one shot he needs to win.
2. The nitty gritty: Jim Furyk is as tough as anyone in the game. He can make a clutch shot or a clutch putt. He’s already won an Open, the 2003 edition at Olympia Fields. A three-putt on the final nine cost him a chance last year at Winged Foot. He’s got a perfect game for the Open. He was on the verge of slipping out of the race Saturday when he three-putted the par-3 16th, but he finished birdie-birdie to get back to six over par.
Why he will: He’s got the patience and he’s not afraid of Woods. Having partnered with Woods in the Ryder Cup, Tiger’s aura of invincibility is gone for Jim. He’ll simply go out and take on Oakmont, which is what he has to do.
3. Behold, the power of cheese: The Wisconsin native Steve Stricker has a U.S. Open pedigree. He hasn’t won a major, but he gets points for frequently coming close over the years. (Maybe he can cash them in for a toaster oven.) He’s finished fifth twice and sixth last year, and, at 40, he’s currently playing what may be the best golf of his career. Plus, he’s got enough experience to survive Sunday’s pressure, and he holed out twice from off the green on Saturday — we call those nasties at my home course.
Why he will: Stricker ranks 11th in fairways hit this week (maybe the single most important stat), fifth in greens hit in regulation (OK, the second most important stat) and he’s had only 25 putts on the back nine the last two rounds. It’s kind of important to make putts on the back nine on Sunday. By the way, did I mention that he was my pre-tournament pick? Well, he was.
4. Canadian club: It’s easy to forget Stephen Ames, the Trinidad and Tobago native who now holds Canadian citizenship. He put up a 69 on Friday. He wasn’t as sharp Saturday, making only one birdie with two bogeys and a double. He’s at five over par, one behind Woods and three behind Badds. His iron game can be stellar, if he’s hitting Oakmont’s fairways, and the memory of his Hogan-like performance in the final round when he won the Players Championship is still pretty fresh. He plays better on tougher courses.
Why he will: He’s already been humiliated by Tiger — remember the 9 and 8 beating Tiger gave him in the match play championship? Having survived that, more or less, Ames has nothing to fear. What else can Tiger do to him?
That’s the list. I told you it was short. Good luck on Sunday. Gentlemen, start your engines.