Tiger Woods, the Open Championship and Back Again Debating If He Is Back Again

Dan LevyNational Lead WriterJuly 18, 2012

LYTHAM ST ANNES, ENGLAND - JULY 17:  Tiger Woods of the United States speaks with the media after his second practice round prior to the start of the 141st Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes on July 17, 2012 in Lytham St Annes, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Another major championship in golf provides yet another opportunity for the public to debate if Tiger Woods is or is not officially "back," an idea as ridiculous as it is engaging.

Woods leads the PGA in wins (three) and tops the Tour in money this season. He's also first in FedExCup standings and third in Ryder Cup points.

Of course, none of that matters to some people, who demand we not regard the most talented golfer to ever step onto a tee box as officially "back" until he wins another major championship. 

Conveniently for those naysayers, we have ourselves a real, bona fide major championship this week. In fact, The Open Championship, held this year at Royal Lytham & St. Annes off the coast of the Irish Sea, is the oldest major of them all—a real humdinger of a major for Woods to win.

Winning the Open Championship is not like winning the PGA (that we will just assume Woods is going to win this year at Kiawah Island), which will only serve as a chance for detractors to suggest Woods can't really be considered "back" until he wins one of the more major majors. Big as it is, the Wanamaker Trophy has nothing on the Claret Jug. 

Speaking of the Claret Jug, it has been six years since Woods hoisted the symbol of international golf brilliance. Since he last won the British, Woods hasn't even finished in the top 10, missing two tournaments due to injury and missing the cut in a third.

Still, the man who may or may not be back is installed as the early betting favorite with bookmakers around the globe. Woods, who hasn't won any major championship since 2008, is nearly twice as likely to win, per sportsbook odds, as Lee Westwood or Luke Donald. 

As we know, players who get the best gambling odds do not always win tournaments. The next most likely American to win the Open is Phil Mickelson, which, given his terrible track record overseas—just two top-10 finishes in his career at the Open—says quite a lot about how much we can trust betting lines to determine leaderboards.

Still, the fact that Woods is this big a favorite heading into the Open speaks volumes for how "back" people believe he is. As shocking as it might be for Mickelson to win this week, it seems just as shocking to consider a leaderboard at Royal Lytham without Woods near the top.

We know the season Tiger has posted thus far, winning Arnie's tournament and Jack's tournament and his own tournament but failing to put four consistent rounds together at either of the two majors.

All that seems relatively inconsequential when handicapping the Open. We needn't worry about comparing his shot-making or putting from earlier majors this year.

Links golf, especially at a course like Royal Lytham, demands a different skill set than any other tournament the American players have played in this season. Woods will have to reach into his distant bag of tricks to win this week. 

He has fared moderately well at Royal Lytham in his career, finishing 22nd in 1996 as the low amateur. Woods told reporters this week that his performance in 1996, including a second-round 66, helped push him to turn pro

"The Open Championship that year basically, I thought, pushed me toward turning pro versus going back to college," Woods said Tuesday.

"I was still kind of iffy about whether I should turn pro or not. But that gave me so much confidence that I could do it at a high level, I could shoot those scores and I could play against the top players in the world on a very difficult track." 

In 2001, Woods finished tied for 25th in his only Open as a pro at Royal Lytham, a tournament better known for giving us hope David Duval would be a legitimate contender to Woods for the next decade.

Those were simpler times in golf. 

Honestly, those were simpler times for Woods, too. Having completed the Tiger Slam earlier that season, Woods was far-and-away the top player in the world, cementing that notion the following year with two more major titles. 

Now, some 10 years later, Woods has seen 16 majors championship trophies hoisted by other players since he last did the hoisting. So, in a way, whether we think he is "back" or not doesn't really matter.

The debate is summarily ridiculous, if you haven't been able to grasp that from the tone of this piece already. Tiger Woods certainly is back in every tangible and important way possible.

The amount of buzz surrounding the game of golf is palpable when Woods is involved in a tournament. The drama around every early-round shot and the breathlessness of some golf commentators simultaneously marveling at his brilliance and befuddled by his inconsistency is something no other golfer on the planet has ever had to endure.

When other golfers go into a slump, we ignore them. When Woods has a bad round, it becomes the story of the tournament. 

The sheer fact that people pose the question—that debates like this even exist—serve to illustrate how "back" he really is. This discussion doesn't exist without three wins on tour this year (and all those FedExCup points that come with them). How is that not "back"? 

Still, if he can do what the oddsmakers expect and put four solid rounds together, he may finally get to hoist his 15th major championship trophy this week. Then—and only then—will the cynics change their tone. 

Come Sunday, "See, I told you he'd be back" might become the new narrative.