Stuart Appleby, come on down. Adam Scott and Aaron Baddeley, get out the party hats. Sergio Garcia, start the whoopin’ and hollerin’. Phil Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, put on your dancing shoes. And Ernie Els, come out from under the bed and join in the fun.
For you guys, and many more besides, this week’s British Open will be the major championship from heaven. For Tiger Woods, your bete noir, your nemesis, the bane of your golfing existence for a decade will not be at Royal Birkdale. He’ll be at home at his $60 million waterfront estate in Florida nursing his bung knee. That means you’ve got a free run at the title. Yes, try to get your head around that strange notion: you can actually win a major this week.
In amassing just about the best record of anyone who’s ever played (yes, he’s four majors behind Jack Nicklaus’ record tally of 18, but his winning percentage is vastly superior and, at 32, he’s entering the prime of his career), Woods has left a trail of broken bodies, bruised egos, and psychological wrecks strewn in his wake.
Occasionally, players such as Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera and Trevor Immelman produce a career-best performance and pip him into second place. Then there are the freak one-off efforts of Bob May and Rocco Mediate to run him close. But, by and large, when Woods is in contention, he wins. Simple as that.
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And, up against that robotic, unblinking machine, players around him have wilted.
Els is a classic case in point. Once the coolest dude on tour, the South African won US Opens in 1994 and 1997 displaying a steely nerve and cast-iron putting stroke. Then along came Tiger and, apart from a brave win in the 2002 British Open, Els has been totally rattled by the American’s skill and mental toughness. He’s been beaten three times in playoffs by Woods, the last time at the Dubai Desert Classic in 2006.
The Australians have fared no better. Baddeley’s fighting words before his first encounter with Woods at the US Masters in 2000 proved nothing more than hot air. He shot a 77 in the first round at Augusta and missed the cut. At last year’s US Open, Baddeley found himself in the final pair with Woods as he chased his first major, but again went to water in the great man’s company, opening with a triple bogey before stumbling to an 80.
Appleby had a similar experience at the US Masters two months earlier, leading the championship by a stroke going into the final round. But he must have groaned when he realized his playing partner on the Sunday would be none other than a certain T Woods, Mr Kryptonite himself. Appleby sprayed his opening drive way right, double-bogeyed the first hole and signed off for a 75.
An American economist, Jennifer Brown, was so intrigued by this phenomenon she did a study and found that other golfers played worse when competing against Woods than when he was not in the tournament. The scores among the game’s best players were nearly one stroke higher when playing against Woods. This effect was larger when he was on winning streaks and disappeared during his well-publicized slump in 2003-04.
On the delightful Lancashire links at Birkdale, scene of Ian Baker-Finch’s Open win in 1991, there will be no such angst, teeth-grinding or hand-wringing. For this is the closest golf has come to an open Open since 1996: when every player will start out on Thursday with a genuine chance of winning, no matter their frailties or hang-ups.
Charles Happell is a former Fairfax sports editor and columnist.