(Photos courtesy of Marc Serota)
On the list of sports sounds I’d love to hear again in 2021 is the roar of the gallery when Tiger Woods gets on a roll. The energy that moves through the crowd is palpable, just a different experience than you feel with any other player.
If you’ve never been to a major or PGA Tour event when Tiger Woods is in the field, you owe it to yourself to go, just as soon as the pandemic lets you. Tiger turned 45 in December and this week has undergone back surgery No. 5, this one to relieve pressure on a nerve. Any time he’s playing, we should view it as potentially a farewell tour.
There’s just no way to predict how long Woods’ fused spine will let him compete at the highest level as he chases two remarkable records.
One is the all-time PGA Tour wins mark, which Woods currently shares with Sam Snead at 82 victories. Woods will hold the record alone with a win in any PGA Tour event, with his most recent coming in Japan at the ZoZo Championship in October 2019.
The other is more daunting: Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 victories in major championships (The major events are The Masters, U.S. Open, The Open and the PGA Championship.) Woods has 15 major titles after his dramatic win at the 2019 Masters, but given that there are only four majors played per year, Woods is at an age where he realistically has no more than a few years left to seriously contend.
Predicting Tiger’s performance is tricky due to his health. Professional golf is brutally competitive even if Woods wasn’t dealing with a balky back, so for the purposes of analyzing his chances, we have to assume he’ll be able to play. That said, let’s take a look at Tiger’s chances of winning a major in 2021.
The Masters: Augusta National, Augusta, Georgia,
Tiger Woods’ Odds: Currently 50/1
Tiger’s odds are not as good as you might expect at a place where he’s already won five times, including the 2019 win that broke his 11-year drought in majors. But given his form over the past six months, and that he’ll likely not play many events leading up to The Masters, he’s not among the favorites. It’s not just his back, it’s his putter. Woods, one of the greatest clutch putters of all time, has been missing the magic on the greens and no one wins at Augusta without putting well.
But he’s the only guy in the field with five green jackets. No one knows Augusta better than Woods and it was really that experience that helped him pull off his spectacular win two years ago. Augusta is a second-shot golf course, and Woods remains an elite shot maker with his irons, so it’s not like he can’t pull it off. But with Woods now returning from another surgery and The Masters less than three months away, I think it’s unlikely. And just think, if he doesn’t win it this year, maybe he can come back next year and win it at age 46, like Jack did in 1986.
The PGA Championship: Kiawah Island (Ocean Course), South Carolina, May 20-23.
Tiger Woods’ Odds: Currently 33/1
Woods held a share of the second-round lead and faded to a tie for 11th the last time Kiawah hosted the PGA Championship in 2012, which Rory McIlroy won by eight strokes. This is a distinctive and tough oceanside course where Woods has played well, though it will be stretched out to about 7,700 yards for this year’s event.
The PGA boasts perhaps the strongest field of all the majors, but most will be humbled by Kiawah and the field of true contenders is probably no more than 35 players. Tiger’s betting odds are an indication that he is not seen as among the top 10 contenders, but he is such an iconic talent that he’s neither a favorite nor a longshot. He’s an X factor.
So is the weather off the coast of South Carolina. If it’s chilly, Tiger may find it tough going. He’s also been wildly unpredictable in this event – 37th last year, 2nd to Brooks Koepka in 2018, but also two missed cuts in his two previous appearances. I see one of the young guns emerging at Kiawah, with Tiger making the cut but not a run at the title.
U.S. Open, Torrey Pines, La Jolla, California, June 17-20
Tiger Woods’ Odds: Currently 28/1
The site of Tiger’s third U.S. Open victory in 2008 also stands as one of the greatest golf duels of all time: Woods beat Rocco Mediate in the first hole of a sudden-death playoff after the duo stood tied after four rounds and were still tied after an 18-hole Monday playoff.
It’s hard to believe that was Tiger’s last win in a U.S. Open because it came in an era when it seemed he’d win half the majors he played.
Could he return in 2021 and land his 16th major? Yes, mainly because Woods has won eight professional events on the gorgeous Torrey Pines layout. He loves the course and you can’t discount the value of so many previous wins if he is in the hunt down the stretch.
In some ways a rugged U.S. Open setup seems like the toughest assignment for an aging golfer, but what the course actually does is eliminate the pretenders. What Tiger can’t afford is to get off to a rough start, but if he is in the mix come the weekend on a course that suits him, he could do it.
The Open: Royal St. George’s, United Kingdom, July 15-18
Tiger Woods’ Odds: Currently 20/1
Oddsmakers see this as Woods’ best chance to pull off a major victory in 2021 and it makes sense. Here’s why: If Tiger makes the trip overseas, that means he is physically ready to go. If he’s ready to go, this is the kind of course he can contend. Lots of blind shots, lots of creativity required, a score of around par can win the event if the weather is a factor. Tiger thrives in those conditions.
Tiger has competed in an Open on this course only once, in 2003, and he finished tied for 4th, just two shots behind winner Ben Curtis. Woods did not play the event when the Open returned to Royal St. George’s in 2011, but it was an older golfer who won that year when Darren Clarke claimed the Claret Jug at age 42.
It all depends on how Woods is playing as summer arrives. If he is on trending up headed into The Open, I could see him turning in an inspired performance. He’ll be fired up to be there and let’s not forget, he briefly held the lead in the final round of the 2018 event before suffering a few errant shots down the stretch. He owns three Open victories, including back-to-back in 2005-06 and he’d love to shine again on this global stage.