Tiger Woods’ new year is about to begin. So what should we expect?
Our experts gathered around to predict whether Year 2 of the comeback will be better than, worse than or the same as Year 1.
1. What area of Tiger’s game worries you the most?
Bob Harig: There will continue to be understandable concern about Tiger and the driver. Putting, though, is the biggest issue. His strokes-gained: putting stat was a respectable 48th on the PGA Tour, but he just had too many tournaments in 2018 in which he made nothing. Three times he switched putters trying to get it right, eventually going back to his trusty Scotty Cameron. And putting does not typically improve with age. It puts a lot of pressure on the rest of Woods’ game if this aspect is not better or at least more consistent in 2019.
Michael Collins: Putting. If there’s one thing that can save a golfer but that goes south quicker when you’re older, it’s putting. The great equalizer for Tiger can also be the bane of his golf existence. We saw what happens when his putter goes cold. That scares me going into the Year 2 of the comeback.
Ian O’Connor: He certainly doesn’t make the putts he used to make, but if I’m a Tiger fan I still worry the most when he has a driver in his hands. Or at least a driver in his hands when he absolutely has to hit a fairway while in contention on a Sunday. Woods might be the mentally toughest golfer ever, but the big stick is still the one club in his bag that has a mind of its own.
Kevin Van Valkenburg: The putter. I think he’ll actually be able to scrape it around with the driver, but I’m convinced the putter is going to be his Achilles’ heel in majors. Almost no one becomes a better putter as they get older. Maybe he doesn’t need to putt great to win another major, but if he really wants to catch Jack Nicklaus and those 18 majors, he needs to putt like he once did.
Nick Pietruszkiewicz: I agree it’s the putter. Remember the famous line after Tiger rolled in the putt in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate? As the putt wobbled its way there and eventually curled in the side door, NBC announcer Dan Hicks said, “Expect anything different?” That was how it was back then. Putts that mattered just always went in. It’s not that way now.
2. Tiger enters his 2019 schedule ranked 13th. Where will he finish?
Harig: He will finish 15th. And that’s not as bad as it sounds. Tiger made a huge jump in the rankings last year. A lot of that had to do with having a clean slate: He was gaining points, not losing. That will change somewhat this year. High finishes at places such as Honda, Valspar and Quicken Loans in 2018 will be diminished. Woods could actually play as well as he did last year and still lose ground. It’s much tougher at the top. Case in point: Jason Day, who won twice in 2018, and dropped a spot from 13 to 14.
Collins: Inside the top 10, but still outside the top four.
O’Connor: I’ll say seventh. It’s so hard to climb the ladder all the way back to No. 1, and Woods will have his moments in 2019 when he looks a little like the old and broken player he was before his resurgence. But I don’t think 2018 was a one-hit wonder. I do think more often than not we will see the guy who nearly won back-to-back majors at The Open Championship and the PGA and who won in Atlanta — in all his red-shirted glory.
Van Valkenburg: I think he’ll make it as high as No. 7. He’s so good at grinding and finishing rounds. He never phones it in. And that’s one thing that’s always separated him from his peers — and those younger than him.
Pietruszkiewicz: Ninth. I don’t know why, but being in the top 10 feels like it’s something that would matter to him. As noted, it’ll be harder to move up the list like he did last year. There will be good and bad — wins mixed with a few missed cuts. But all in all, a year in which he finishes in the top 10 should — and will — feel like a big accomplishment.
3. How many times will Tiger win this year?
Harig: Once. You cannot expect him to pick up where he left off after winning the Tour Championship. In nearly four months since, he has played just one stroke-play event. Torrey Pines this week is not the “home” course advantage it used to be for Woods, and Riviera, site of the Genesis Open, is a place he has never had much success. He will need some time to work back into form again. Bay Hill? Players? Memorial? A major? BMW Championship at Medinah? All are certainly possible, but one victory seems a safe pick.
Collins: Four. First, he’ll win the Arnold Palmer Invitational because, well, if you don’t know his record there … um, would you like to make a “small” wager with me? The Players Championship, because he knows how to play that course without a driver and from the trees. The Memorial, because it’s another design he’s comfortable with and he won’t have to putt or hit every shot perfectly. Last, he’ll win the BMW Championship. For all you “new kids” out there, look up “2006 Medinah” and check out who won. This time around, the course won’t be set up like a major and Tiger will be in fall-season form like last year.
O’Connor: Tempted to say three times, but I’ll go with twice. Three is just asking for too much. But Tiger’s confidence is finally back, and self-belief was always his greatest asset.
Van Valkenburg: Twice. A major and one of the playoff events with a smaller field.
Pietruszkiewicz: Three. There will be a couple of clunkers out there, weeks when the back or the knee or glutes or whatever just don’t feel right. But there will be a few when things click, when the game and the brain go into high gear just like they did at the Tour Championship. So I say three, and I am even saying one before he gets to the Masters. Think that would elevate the anticipation even more for the year’s first major?
4. OK, any major wins?
Harig: Yes, the one tournament he will win in 2019 is the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Pebble is not the brutal layout we often associate with the U.S. Open. Still, it typically plays tough for the championship, which is good for Tiger. In addition to his 2000 win, Woods tied for fourth in 2010. He obviously likes the course, and it sets up well for a buildup to victory. By then, Tiger will have likely played nine or 10 tournaments this year, with a nice run of perhaps Wells Fargo, PGA Championship and the Memorial Tournament in the preceding six weeks. It’s the perfect way to play and prepare his way into a tournament, without overdoing it.
Collins: Zero. Here’s the part where the Tiger fanatics will call me bad names. As great as The Open and the PGA Championship runs were last year, they epitomize the problem for Tiger Woods. Francesco Molinari stared him down at The Open and Brooks Koepka thought it was “cool” that TW was charging at the PGA. With no fear factor, Tiger has to play mistake-free on the weekend.
O’Connor: Yeah, one of his two victories will be a major, and it will happen at Pebble Beach — site of his most dominant performance. I always figured Tiger’s next major victory would happen at Augusta, or at a funky Open overseas, and certainly not at the U.S. Open, the toughest one to win. Pebble is the USGA exception. And on Sunday, how cool will that scene be of Woods framed by the ocean as he marches home to his first major W in 11 years?
Van Valkenburg: One. I think he’s going to win The Open at Royal Portrush. He still has the most creative mind the game has ever seen, and I’m convinced he’ll be in the mix of every Open until he’s 55.
Pietruszkiewicz: Two. OK, OK, you think I’m nuts. I am not as confident about which two it will be, but if forced to make a call: the PGA and U.S. Open. Sure, Bethpage Black is a monster, but its greens are relatively flat, so the sometimes-balky putter might just find its happy place there. And call me sentimental, but muscle memory, Pebble Beach and Father’s Day at the U.S. Open just feels like a win. (Now, if you said it was the Masters and The Open, I wouldn’t argue. None of these venues feels impossible for him.)
5. Tiger as Presidents Cup captain, player, both or neither?
Harig: Both. There is no doubt Tiger will be the captain. That has already been determined. Can he be on his own team? He’s 21st in the standings having yet to play an event this season, so he has put himself in a hole to be one of the eight qualifiers, which will be determined after this coming year’s Tour Championship. But if Woods has the kind of year he had in 2018, he will have a good shot to be among the top 12. While that would require picking himself, it’s hard to see him not playing if his game is in good shape. His Ryder Cup record might not be great, but Tiger has an excellent Presidents Cup record (24-15-1) and is unlikely to be facing the same grind he endured at the 2018 Ryder Cup.
Collins: He will be both player and captain this year at the Presidents Cup. That dual role cannot be done at the Ryder Cup. At this event, it’s easy. This event again won’t be competitive, which will just fuel the “Why can’t he/we play like that at the Ryder Cup?” questions.
O’Connor: Both. He’s on record saying he badly wants to be a playing captain, and I think he’ll will that goal into reality. He needs to rinse some of that bad taste from his mouth after his dreadful effort in the Ryder Cup.
Van Valkenburg: I think he’ll just be the captain. No reason for him to play. It’s time to see how good he is at being the captain of a team event. I think he’ll be great, and we already know (for whatever reason) he’s not great when he’s playing in them.
Pietruszkiewicz: Both. Because, why not? Let’s be honest, these are promotions for the sport. And as the Ryder Cup’s little brother, the Presidents Cup could use a boost. And what better boost than saying Tiger is both player and captain?
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