Don't expect Tiger to roar
With Woods and McIlroy struggling, hottest golfer on the planet Stenson can seal Open glory
TIGER WOODS passed a crucial fitness test at Congressional... but failed the litmus test! To suggest Tiger's capable of winning Majors before he manages to get back into Sunday red is simply absurd.
It was staggering to see several bookmakers install Woods as joint-favourite with Rory McIlroy to win the upcoming British Open at Royal Liverpool after he missed the cut by four at the Quicken Loans National last Friday. Those ludicrous odds eased a smidgen in some quarters yesterday.
In reality, neither Tiger nor McIlroy hold a candle to Henrik Stenson or Adam Scott when it comes to recent form at the Majors, though the Holywood native at least can draw confidence from last month's victory at the BMW PGA at Wentworth.
Woods plainly was delighted to experience no pain on his first competitive outing since undergoing microdiscectomy on March 31 to repair a pinched nerve in his back, yet his short game creaked and spluttered like a rusty old Trabant.
Giving commendable evidence of the top priority in his life, Tiger presses ahead this week with plans to bring his daughter Sam (7) and son Charlie (4) on a summer holiday.
However, his failure (so far) to enter next week's Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen augurs poorly for his prospects of knocking off those rough edges before teeing it up in 16 days' time at Hoylake in his first Major championship of 2014.
As time runs out for 38-year-old Woods in his lifelong quest to surpass the record 18 Major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, one supposes he'd cherish an opportunity to play the Open in the full of his health and leave no stone unturned in his preparation.
Still, there are well-established business conventions to be observed. Should Tiger not be in the mood to give Scottish Open sponsors Aberdeen Asset Management a fabulous freebie (one suspects their budget is already accounted for with guys like Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose Ernie Els and McIlroy in the field), don't be surprised if he pays Ireland's top links courses a discreet visit next week en route to the Open. In fairness, Woods achieved his primary goal last Thursday and Friday.
"Though I missed the cut by four shots, the fact I was able to even play (was encouraging)," said the tournament host. "I came back four weeks earlier than we thought I could. I had no setbacks. I got my feel for playing tournament golf.
"I made a ton of little, simple little mistakes, misjudging things and missing the ball on the wrong sides and just didn't get up-and-down on little simple shots. Those are the little things I can correct, which is nice."
Tiger's euphoria at being able to compete pain-free for the first time since putting his back out last summer was understandable, though his insistence that he can iron out the many creases in his game before Hoylake appears delusional.
For sure, he won brilliantly on his last visit to the Wirral in 2006, pointedly just a month after failing to make the weekend in the US Open at Winged Foot. On that occasion, Woods stumbled to his first missed cut at the Majors following weeks of inactivity in the aftermath of his dad Earl's passing.
The immense difference between Woods at age 30 and the Tiger of today may be matched by vastly contrasting playing conditions on the links at Hoylake.
The course, which in 2006 was sun-baked, rock hard and running fast, currently is lush green with waist-deep rough bordering its fairways, while it stretches credibility to expect the wind not to whistle across this infamously exposed coastline for two Opens in succession. And Tiger's not best-equipped right now for such a stiff examination.
Neither is Mickelson, one suspects. Given his poor form – failure to register a top-10 finish since last August and a dispiriting missed cut at the Masters – Mickelson's prospects of repeating the 'miracle at Muirfield' appear bleak.
Meanwhile, McIlroy's focus and, indeed, his wedge play were too loose to inspire confidence as he missed the cut in what should have been ideal course and playing conditions at the Irish Open in Fota.
Casting an analytical eye over the last four Majors, starting at Muirfield, two players stand out, even among the mere nine who made the cut at every venue.
Fittingly, they are world No 1 Scott and No 2 Stenson, though the latter currently appears to be hottest golfer on the planet from tee-to-green.
Stenson, runner-up to Mickelson at Muirfield and third behind Louis Oosthuizen in the 2010 Open at St Andrews and Padraig Harrington at Royal Birkdale in 2008, tied fourth to Martin Kaymer at the recent US Open without even hitting top gear.
Though denied by Fabrizio Zanotti on the fifth tie hole at the BMW International last Sunday, the Swede's length and accuracy off the tee, especially with his near-infallible three-wood, makes him an irresistible choice for Hoylake.
Kaymer was supreme at Pinehurst but only two players in the past 42 years (Tiger in 2000 and Tom Watson in 1982) have won the US and British Opens back-to-back and the German looked understandably flat as he missed the cut on his triumphant homecoming at the BMW International.
In contrast, Justin Rose recovered from a few late errors on Sunday evening to endorse decent recent form by beating Shawn Stefani with a par on the tie hole at Congressional to claim his sixth PGA Tour title and his first win since Merion.
Yet the polished Englishman has made the weekend just once in the past four years at the Open, while his only top-10 was that famous fourth place as an amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1998.
Graeme McDowell's tough too and has links ring-craft but not that confident, cutting edge which helped him carve out US Open victory at Pebble Beach in 2010. Meanwhile, one wonders if Darren Clarke ever can regain the depths of 'unconsciousness' he plumbed so brilliantly at Royal St Georges in 2011.
The safest bet of them all, however, is to forget about Tiger for Hoylake!
Watson's pledge to stick by Woods could come back to haunt him
HOW ironic that the first Irish Ryder Cup captain should be saddled with divisive and potentially disruptive legal proceedings involving Ireland's two top-ranked players.
Yet the challenge posed to Paul McGinley's noted man-management skills by the naming of Graeme McDowell in Rory McIlroy's Commercial Court dispute with Horizon pales alongside the selection quandary facing US skipper Tom Watson.
The return to action of Tiger Woods will be welcomed throughout golf, but the pledge of Watson (right) to pick the game's greatest if fit could come back to haunt him if the ex-world No 1 struggles to regain top form. By rights, it should take only a couple of events for Tiger to shake off the ring rust he showed in missing the cut at Congressional last Friday.
But what if he falls into a form slump as deep and persistent as that which has afflicted America's other iconic player, Phil Mickelson, this year? As Ryder Cup headaches go, they don't come any bigger than Tiger and Phil right now.
McDowell could do without added distractions as he defends his French Open title at Le Golf National this week. The Portrush man's focus at present is on thrusting himself into the all-important top nine on the Ryder Cup points table.
Meanwhile, US Open heroine Stephanie Meadow makes her Ladies European Tour debut on Thursday in the ISPS Handa European Masters at the Buckinghamshire Golf Club.
Invited to play after her fabulous third place behind Michelle Wie at Pinehurst, Meadow (22) hopes to have a crack at the Ricoh British Women's Open at Royal Birkdale next week. She practised yesterday at Southport and Ainsdale, the venue for Open final-qualifying next Monday.