Tiger Woods never posted any of Harry Vardon’s feats on his bedroom door.
His career has always been about Jack Nicklaus and that benchmark of 18 professional majors, and Woods has made incredible strides in his first decade on the PGA Tour. He captured the career Grand Slam at age 24, two years sooner than Nicklaus. He won back-to-back titles at the Masters, and one-third of his majors have come from Augusta National, just like Jack.
But along with a closet full of green jackets, Woods is starting to assemble quite a collection of claret jugs.
He heads to Carnoustie for the 136th British Open with a chance to become the first player since Peter Thomson in 1954-56 to win golf’s oldest championship three straight times. If he’s successful, that would give him as many jugs as jackets.
Nicklaus and Vardon share the record for most titles (6) in a single major. For all the fixation over Woods and Augusta National, his presence at the British Open has become equally daunting.
Could he reach Vardon’s record at the British Open before Nicklaus’ mark at the Masters?
Is it possible his dominance lies more on the linksland than amid the azaleas?
“I will say this: The British Open Championship is my favorite major,” Woods said. “I just love the history, tradition and atmosphere. You need patience and imagination to play well.”
Thomson has watched Woods develop a game suited for links golf and wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he goes on a dominant run.
“He’ll have a run for 10 or 15 years during which he’ll win at least half of them, maybe a few more,” Thomson said from his home in St. Andrews. “I’m assuming he goes about it in the way he does now. There’s never been any golfer, maybe even a tennis player, who applied himself in such a way that Tiger has.”
Nick Faldo, who won the Masters and British Open three times each, helped Woods into his first green jacket in 1997 and always figured that would be his domain. Now, he’s not so sure.
“That’s a tough one,” Faldo said. “You’ve got to believe that everything about him is set up perfectly for Augusta. But he has this great ability now to adapt, as he did at Hoylake, where strategy golf came in.”
Augusta National has added nearly 500 yards since Woods won his first green jacket by a record 12 shots. And with improved technology, from drivers to shafts to golf balls, Woods no longer has exclusive rights to power.
The British Open has always been more about brains than brawn, the often overlooked strength of the world’s No. 1 player.
After twice winning at St. Andrews by either hitting it over or around the bunkers, Woods arrived at Royal Liverpool last year to find the grass brown and crusty, the fairways running faster than some greens. After a few practice rounds, he decided his best option was to leave driver in the bag and navigate his way around the course with his irons.
It proved to be a brilliant strategy, and he went on to a two-stroke victory.
“The majority of golfers really don’t relish playing a course like Carnoustie, Hoylake, Lytham & St. Annes,” Thomson said. “They’re not comfortable playing that kind of golf. Tiger is. I remember seeing him play at Lytham as an amateur, and he didn’t look like he belonged there. It was a complete mystery to him. But it didn’t take him long to get the hang of it.
“He’s such a brain, and he has studied it very well. That’s what the Open championship courses demand.”
Carnoustie is nothing like Hoylake.
Located north of St. Andrews beyond the Firth of Tay, it is considered the toughest links course in the world with its narrow fairways, the winding Barry Burn over the closing holes, pot bunkers that put a premium on strategy and wind that dictates everything.
Woods tied for seventh at Carnoustie in 1999. He finished at 294, which remains his highest 72-hole score as a professional.
There was a reason for that.
The fairways were as narrow as a country lane on some holes. The rough allowed for little more than gouging the ball back into play, and sometimes even that required luck. There were 102 rounds in the 80s, and two in the 90s. It was so unpredictable that Rod Pampling was in the lead after the first round, and on his way home after the second.
And the conclusion was like a carnival.
Jean Van de Velde had a three-shot lead going to the last hole, then took triple bogey with a series of questionable choices and terribly bad fortune. The three-man playoff was won by Paul Lawrie, whose 10-shot comeback on the final day was a major championship record.
Lawrie might be the only one with happy thoughts of Carnoustie.
“I’ve kind of suppressed those memories,” said Phil Mickelson, who shot 79-76 and missed the cut by one shot. He didn’t miss another cut until last month in the U.S. Open at Oakmont.
The British tabloids referred to the links as “Car-Nasty,” and those weren’t shock headlines.
“I’ve never played a golf course as hard as that golf course was set up, and as unfair as it was set up,” Woods said. “I remember No. 6, stepping off the fairway 9 yards wide in a layup area. That’s not a real big layup area when you have to hit a 4-iron.”
Even so, it is a major championship in which Woods has thrived.
Just like Jack.
Nicklaus only won three claret jugs, the fewest of any of the four majors. But perhaps his most astounding record at the British Open was finishing runner-up a record seven times. Nicklaus was so adept on the links that during on 18-year stretch, from 1963 through 1980, he finished first or second 10 times and was never worse than 12th.
One shot here, one putt there, and no telling how many Opens he could have won.
That might be the direction Woods is going.
Along with his three victories, he was one shot out of a playoff at Royal Birkdale in 1998, two shots behind Ben Curtis at Royal St. George’s in 2003. And while going for the calendar Grand Slam in 2002, he was two shots out of the lead going into the third round when he caught the worst of the wicked weather at Muirfield and shot 81.
He has posted four straight top-10s since then, his longest such streak in any major.
“I feel pretty comfortable with both,” Woods said when asked whether he was better off at the Masters or British Open. “The British Open is the only tournament where it’s hit or miss on tee times. If you play well at the Open, sometimes it may not be good enough, because you just may get the wrong side of the draw.
“I always enjoyed the British Open. I always have.”
No other American dominated the British Open like Tom Watson, a five-time winner and the only champion to win on five courses. Watson won his first major at Carnoustie in 1975, holding off Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, beating Jack Newton in a playoff.
“I felt on links courses, I had a pretty good understanding of how hard to hit it and a great ability to get the ball up-and-down,” Watson said. “And there is the factor of how you negotiate these golf courses. That’s what Tiger did last year so well at Royal Liverpool. He just refused to challenge the bunker,”
The next challenge is Carnoustie, where Woods will try to move one major closer to Nicklaus’ record in the majors – and Vardon’s record in the British Open.