GULLANE, Scotland — British Open champions at Muirfield are more likely to be found on a ballot for the Hall of Fame than the bottom of a betting sheet. It has never been known as a haven for long shots, which would seem to bode well for someone like Tiger Woods.
Even so, Woods struggled to find the right definition of an “outsider” when asked Tuesday about the trend of high-caliber winners at Muirfield. Because if an “outsider” is someone who had never won a major, then all bets are off.
“You probably can’t say that given the fact that over the past, what, five years or so … that we’ve had first-time winners at virtually every single major,” Woods said. “The fields are so deep now and the margin between the first player and the last player in the field is not that big anymore. It’s very small.”
Eighteen players have won the last 20 majors, the most diverse collection of major champions in some 25 years. Fourteen of them had never won a major.
Perhaps it was more than just a coincidence when Woods dated this trend to the last five years.
Because that’s when he stopped winning them.
“There’s certainly a connection between so many different winners and Tiger not winning one,” Graeme McDowell said. “Because we all know when he gets in the mood, he likes to win a few. I think in the period when Tiger kind of went missing for a couple of years there, it gave a lot of players a chance to step up to the plate and show how healthy the game of golf is, get their confidence up and win the big ones and really get a bit of belief in themselves.
“But I think Tiger has been responsible for raising the bar,” he said. “I think he certainly has set the standard for how good guys can be.”
Times sure have changed since the British Open last came to this links course along the Firth of Forth. In 2002, the question was whether Woods was going to win all four majors in a single year. Eleven years later, not a major goes by without him being asked when he’s going to win one — any of them — again.
The drought is at 16 majors, stretched over five years, since Woods hobbled and winced his way to a playoff win at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open for his 14th career major, leaving him four short of the standard set by Jack Nicklaus.
Woods gets defensive when asked about his confidence. Surely it would seem to have been easier when he was winning them with regularity. All he can do is point to his four PGA Tour wins this year, his No. 1 ranking fully restored, the way his named his bandied about as a favorite at every Grand Slam event.
But there are no answers for why he can win just about anywhere except in the majors.
“I think it’s just a shot here and there,” he said. “It’s making a key up-and-down here, or getting a good bounce, capitalizing on an opportunity here and there.”
He pointed to the par-5 15th hole at Augusta National in the second round of the Masters this year, when he was poised to take the lead until his wedge struck the flag and caromed back off the green and into the water. It led to a bogey, which became a triple-bogey 8 when it was discovered he took an illegal drop. He never seriously challenged the rest of the week.
“It’s not much,” Woods said. “It could happen on the first day. It could happen on the last day. But it’s turning that tide and getting the momentum at the right time or capitalizing on an opportunity. That’s what you have to do to win major championships.”
One thing that no longer concerns him, at least going into the opening round Thursday, is his health.
Woods revealed during the U.S. Open that he had a left elbow injury that was aggravated by hitting out of the thick rough at Merion. Doctors told him it was an elbow strain and recommended rest, forcing him to miss his title defense at Congressional and likely another start at The Greenbrier.
He has not competed since the U.S. Open, and while he says “everything is good to go,” he has played only nine holes each day.
“It’s one of the good things of taking the time off to let it heal and get the treatment and therapy on it,” he said. “The main reason was that coming over here the ground is going to be hard, obviously. And I’m going to need that elbow to be good. And just in case the rough was … well, reports were it was going to be high and it was going to be lush. I needed to have this thing set and healed.”
It’s not that reports were exaggerated.
Ernie Els, the defending British Open champion and the last Open winner at Muirfield, returned to the course last month after winning in Germany.
“It was like this,” Els said, tapping the dark green cooler on the 13th tee. “And there was a bit of rain that day, so it was very green. The rough was thick. You could just hack it out. And then I get here two weeks later, and it’s this.”
He looked across a course that was a blend of yellow, wispy grass framing the fairways that were turning brown by the day. Most players prefer a brown links course because it’s running fast. Els didn’t buy that, not at Muirfield.
“A little more luck involved,” he said.
Muirfield doesn’t have the severity of humps and hollows in the fairway. It looks like links golf, not a trip to the moon. But the drier the condition, the faster the ball runs along the ground, and the harder it is to control where it stops.
Maybe that’s what Woods needs — a little luck.
“I’ve had a pretty good year so far — won four times,” Woods said, again on the defensive. “Even though I haven’t won a major championship in five years, I’ve been there in a bunch of them where I’ve had chances. I just need to keep putting myself there, and eventually I’ll get some.”
Since returning from the crisis in his personal life that led to divorce, Woods has had five finishes in the top four at the 12 majors he has played. But he still hasn’t seriously contended. The closest he has been to the winning score was three shots, at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
McDowell won that U.S. Open. Adam Scott won the Masters this year. Justin Rose won the U.S. Open. The closest anyone has been to dominance in the majors was Rory McIlroy, who won two of them by eight shots, though his game is now in a slump.
That used to be Woods.
“You could never get 18 players win 20 majors when there’s a guy winning 14 majors in 12 years,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “There was definitely a period when he was winning them all and there were less people who thought they could.”
“There are more players who think they can win,” Ogilvy said. “And every time one of those players wins one, it gives confidence to others that they can.”