Tiger Woods was asked before the 143rd British Open what he would consider a respectable finish after missing most of the season with a back injury and playing only two competitive rounds before teeing it up at Royal Liverpool.
“First,” Woods said.
For years, it has been his standard answer, one that rolls off his tongue with remarkable ease and sincerity. With him, there is first and nothing else, no matter how many other factors would suggest that winning would be a fantasy. Woods expects to win every tournament, period.
In part, that’s what makes him Tiger Woods.
He doesn’t strike fear into his competitors the way he once did. Injuries and personal problems have taken their toll since the 2008 U.S. Open, which marked the last time he won a major championship. He won that year with a bad knee, was divorced two years later and suddenly turned human.
Woods has 79 career PGA Tour victories and is three wins away from tying Sam Snead for most in history. The record that matters more to him, of course, is Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships. What once seemed inevitable now looks improbable given the 24 straight majors that have passed without Tiger winning.
Who would have imagined that Tiger Woods, to me the best golfer in history, actually failed to meet his full potential?
Nicklaus was 58 years old when he first missed a major championship for which he was eligible. Arnold Palmer didn’t miss one until he was 65. Woods failed to play in six majors over the past seven years. He played only one tournament, missing the cut two weeks ago, between back surgery and the British Open.
The Open serves as a checkpoint for Woods, who continues his pursuit of Nicklaus while trying to elude Father Time. Woods had been ahead of the Golden Bear’s pace since winning the 2000 British Open, when he demolished the field for his fourth major at age 24.
Nicklaus was 38 when he won his 15th major, taking the 1978 British Open at St. Andrews. Woods is 38 now, which means he would need to take the Open this weekend to keep pace with Nicklaus. Critics have lined up to say that he has little chance of winning.
But this is Tiger Woods. Only a fool would bet against him.
Woods shot a 3-under par 69 in his opening round Thursday, an achievement considering he started with bogeys on the first two holes. He made five birdies over his final eight holes, including three straight. He gave away shots on No. 10 and No. 18 with pars on two of the three backside par 5s.
Much has changed personally and professionally with Woods since he captured the 2006 Open at Liverpool. He won that tournament two months after his father died. He appeared happily married. He was still with longtime caddie Steve Williams. And he was 30 years old, still in the prime years of his career.
You see him now as a flawed person with flaws in his game. He continues to tinker with a swing that once seemed perfectly fine. His driver and putter have taken turns abandoning him. He’s had six surgeries on his knees. His back problems are troubling considering his job description.
Nicklaus himself showed he could win in his late 30s and beyond if he put himself into position enough times. More remarkable than Nicklaus’ 18 major victories were his 19 second-place finishes. Nicklaus finished in the top three of majors 48 times and in the top five a record 56 times.
He finished in the top five of the British Open 11 straight times. He had a stretch beginning with the 1970 British Open and ending with the 1978 British Open, both of which he won, where he finished in the top 10 31 times in 33 major tournaments. He also won three majors after his 40th birthday.
Woods has numerous critics who are prepared to dismiss his quest to catch Nicklaus, and perhaps rightfully so. Golf around the world is more competitive than ever, partly because of Tiger’s influence and popularity. The PGA Tour is much deeper now than when Nicklaus ruled.
Woods, at his best still the best, remains within striking distance. You could see his confidence building with every hole Thursday. He kept his driver in the bag and his emotions in check. His putting stroke was consistent. He’s in a comfortable place on a course he’s already navigated for a major title.
In 2006, Woods was a combined 14-under par on the par 5s, destroying the long holes despite hitting one driver all week. He hit one fewer fairway Thursday than in his opening round at Royal Liverpool eight years ago. He was two shots behind his pace from 2006, when he beat Chris DiMarco by two shots.
Tiger said he expected to win this week because he can. That much has never changed.