KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Pete Dye is known as a master of deception, using several tactics to make golfers feel uncomfortable on the courses he constructs. One of Dye’s finest works, Kiawah Island, will be on display at this week’s PGA Championship.
And, as always, Tiger Woods will be the focal point when he sets foot on this Dye design. Woods, in the midst of his best season since a personal crisis off the course, has another chance this week to end a major-less drought that has extended past the four-year mark.
Like Dye’s best work, looking at Woods’ 2012 resume can be about looking past the deception. Depending on whom you listen to, Woods is either vastly better than critics give him credit for, or he still has far to go. There’s never any middle ground when discussing the 14-time major champion.
“Things have progressed,” Woods said about his game, “but still, not winning a major championship doesn’t feel very good.”
For all Woods’ success this year, including three victories, his play in the majors – the events that carry unequaled importance – is an area of concern. His play in the Grand Slam events has been uncharacteristic, at best, bordering on disconcerting.
We’ve seen plenty of positive signs from Woods this year. The two-time FedEx Cup champion is atop those standings once again. He leads the money list, as well. Woods also is atop the U.S. Ryder Cup rankings, clinching one of the eight roster spots that will be determined at week’s end. This will be the first time since the 2009 Presidents Cup that he will have earned his way onto an international roster via points, not a captain’s selection.
But victories in Orlando, Columbus and Washington don’t mean much in regard to Woods’ ultimate legacy. Wins in regular Tour events are a means to an end, which is success in majors. Jack Nicklaus’ record 0f 18 career majors is all that matters at this point.
Woods struggled down the stretch at the past two majors after finding himself in good position after 36 holes. He was tied for the halfway lead at this year’s U.S. Open and in third place after two rounds at the Open Championship, four shots off the lead.
Woods didn’t break par on the weekend of either Open, shooting a combined 11 over in those four rounds. He shot 75-73 at The Olympic Club, and a triple bogey on the sixth hole of the final round left him four shots behind Ernie Els at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Woods’ performance at the Masters was even worse. He didn’t break par in a single round and finished 40th.
Woods undoubtedly has made progress, and lots of it, this year. He leads the Tour in scoring average, is fourth in total driving and 13th in greens in regulation. He says he’s happy with the way he has implemented instructor Sean Foley’s swing changes, and the fact that his good health has allowed him to practice more. But when Woods talks about this year’s improvement, he doesn’t mention his putting. That’s not an accidental omission.
He arrives at the PGA Championship after a T-8 finish at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. Unlike his performance in the past two majors, his week was salvaged, not ruined, by his weekend play. Woods shot 68-66 over the final two rounds at Firestone – making just one bogey in those 36 holes – after opening with 70-72. He was bogey-free in his final round, missing just four fairways and three greens.
“I’m very pleased with what I’ve done. This is the way I can hit the golf ball,” Woods said. “This is the way I can play.”
The putter – the club that will be most important to Woods’ quest for another major – was the problem last week.
Woods was 57th in the 78-man field in strokes gained-putting, thanks in large part to especially poor putting performances in the first two rounds. He left Akron saying he was starting his putts on line in the tournament’s latter stages, blaming his misses on misreads. No matter the culprit, a missed putt is a missed putt.
Still, there’s no reason to believe that Woods can’t win this week. “It’s nice to be able to do the things I know I can do,” he said.
Does that include winning a 15th major? We shall see.
Follow Sean Martin on Twitter @GolfweekSMartin