With the U.S. Open field at Merion wading in puddles and practice rounds intermittently suspended, let’s pause for some predictive fun and try to forecast something besides the weather. Of all the questions posed at Merion, the most tantalizing is whether a precious antique of a golf course that is less than 7,000 yards long can put up a flicker of resistance against the monumental reputation of Tiger Woods.
Woods enters the tournament as the “overwhelming favorite,” according to the experts. He has reclaimed the No.1 ranking, won four of his first eight starts, and would seem ready to crush pretty little Merion like a strongman bends spoons with his biceps. It’s been five years to the week since Woods won his last major championship at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and he could tie a neat narrative bow by holding the trophy again this week. The one problem with this pat story line is that Woods hasn’t won a major in half a decade for good reason: While he still has plenty of muscle, he seems to have lost some of his nerve.
Golf Digest goes as far in the current issue as to suggest that Woods “may have become a semi-choke artist.” A young contributor named Luke Kerr-Dineen crunched some numbers and noticed something interesting about Woods’s supposed dominance this season. It has been pretty shaky stuff. He has had trouble shutting the door in victories, with a hitchy average of 37 strokes over the final-round back nines. An examination of his last four holes is especially eye-opening. He played those 16 holes in 5 over par, with five bogeys and one double bogey to just two birdies.
Woods’s struggles since 2008 have usually been attributed to injuries, swing changes, and emotional problems after his 2008 knee surgery followed by a marital-infidelity scandal. But a survey of Woods’s performance in majors also confirms the nagging sense that he isn’t the tower of mental strength he used to be. At his best, he was the greatest door-closer in the game: He won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes, and was so forbidding that his mere presence in a pairing cost other players strokes.
But since 2008, Woods shows a distinct pattern of opening the door rather than closing it in weekend rounds of majors. Consider:
●In the 2009 Masters, he was just a stroke off the lead on Sunday with two holes remaining. He finished bogey-bogey to miss a playoff, won by Angel Cabrera. At the PGA Championship that same year, he surrendered a 54-hole lead in a major for the first time in his career when he made five bogeys in the the final round at Hazeltine, including bogeys at Nos. 17 and 18, and lost to Y.E. Yang.
●In the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he needed even par or maybe 1 under in his final round to win. Instead he made six bogeys in his first 12 holes Sunday.
●In the 2011 Masters, he sabotaged his chances with a third-round 74. Came back with a front-nine 31 Sunday, only to miss a par putt at the 12th hole and fade.
●He shared the 36-hole lead in the 2012 U.S Open at Olympic, but shot a 75 on Saturday and then totally imploded with a 6-over-par start Sunday. Later that same summer he was well in contention for the British Open at Lytham — until he made a triple-bogey at the sixth hole Sunday with a three-putt to lose by four strokes. In the PGA at Kiawah’s Ocean Course, he was tied for the lead after 36 holes — and shot 74-72 to finish out of the top 10.
Then there was his erratic performance at this year’s Masters, with the hasty, ill-considered drop on the 15th hole in the second round that culminated in a triple bogey and a penalty. Still, he trailed by just four shots Sunday, with the Augusta greens unusually slow and vulnerable. But he left a half-dozen putts short and settled for an unthreatening 70.
None of this means Woods can’t break the pattern at Merion, but it won’t be easy. PGA Tour courses set up easy for Woods, with hard fairways that grant him even more distance, no rough to speak of, and soft greens. Merion will require more precision. It offers just two par-5s and through the first 13 holes it rewards wedge shots — and Woods has never been a great wedge player. Merion also gets hardest in the section where Woods has been uneven: the closing holes.
And here is one of the most interesting numbers of all. Woods remains one of, if not the, greatest putters of all time — but lately not from inside five feet. Woods currently ranks second on Tour in “total putting” — but just 42ndfrom five feet or less, with 312 makes in 322 attempts. Ten times this season (in just 29 rounds), he has missed short putts.
Most of his statistics remain world-class, of course. And if Woods could somehow break through, the inconsistencies might fade, replaced by the old confidence. The trouble is, a U.S. Open, set up by the USGA on a tight, winding, sidehill, long-roughed, slick-greened course such as Merion, offers a much smaller margin for error than the average PGA Tour stop. And that can get in your head.
For previous Sally Jenkins columns go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.