Tiger Woods didn't make history at Royal Birkdale. He didn't join Old Tom Morris-or James Braid or Peter Thomson on the list of legendary British Open champions. Mark the occasion on your calendar anyway. Something significant happened at the 127th Open Championship: Tiger Woods took a giant step forward in his evolution as a golfer.
Woods left Southport, England, a better player because he finally abandoned grip-it-and-rip-it golf, a style he had employed ever since he dominated last year's Masters with the long ball. "He had gotten into trying to hit it higher," says Butch Harmon, Woods's swing coach, "and because he was playing so well and had so much confidence, he got away with it."
The weather dictated the style of play at Birkdale. Low, wind-cheating knockdown and three-quarter shots were mandatory. Woods adjusted beautifully. He rarely hit a shot at warp-nine power. As a result, he went into the final round with a chance to win, and he made the most of it, shooting a 66 to finish just one stroke out of the Mark O'Meara- Brian Watts playoff. Woods's long game didn't cost him—he simply missed too many short putts when the wind was howling last Friday and Saturday.
The easy, controlled swings Woods made at Birkdale were similar to those he used so effectively to win the second of his three U.S. Amateurs, at hard-baked Newport (R.I.) Country Club in 1995. At Birkdale the new-old style paid off with an opening 65 that tied John Huston for the lead. "It looked as if Tiger throttled back a bit, which is good to see," says Nick Price, who played with Woods last Thursday. "The only time I saw him go hard all day was a two-iron into 15. He had 241 yards and hit it six or seven yards past the pin. A year ago he went full-bore more frequently."
A year ago? How about two months ago. When Woods won the BellSouth Classic in May, he came to the 11th hole on Sunday, an intimidating 193-yard par-3 over a lake, with a one-shot lead. A six-iron was the club of choice, but Woods opted for an eight-iron. He swung out of his shoes and pulled the ball badly. It came to rest on the side of a hill, and although Woods would go on to make a spectacular par, the shot demonstrated the same lack of discipline that resulted in big numbers last year in the U.S. Open at Congressional, the British Open at Royal Troon and the PGA at Winged Foot. The image of Woods vainly slashing a two-iron from Troon's nasty rough came to define the second half of his '97 season.
Now, though, those scenes are becoming few and far between. "There's a great change in the way he plays," Harmon says. "Tiger learned so much from [the British Open] last year. He lost to Justin Leonard by 12 shots despite going 10 over par on three holes. Tiger has worked to lower his trajectory. He switched to a graphite-shafted driver because it makes his ball fly a little lower. We've done things not just for here, but so he can control his distance all the time."
Woods was swinging in slow motion, by his standards, at Birkdale, as were long hitters such as Fred Couples and Davis Love III, who didn't become consistent winners until they fell out of love with how far they hit the ball. Are you listening, John Daly? "Those guys don't need distance," says Harmon. "They need to put the ball in play. Length is a big advantage if used properly. When Greg Norman learned how to control his distance and accuracy, he became one of the greatest drivers we've ever seen."
Woods is too intelligent not to stick with what worked at Royal Birkdale. His patience was tested there at times, especially during his windswept 77 in the third round, but he stayed with his game plan. From now on, expect him to swing as hard as he can less often and be in position to win more. "It's an evolution every player goes through," Woods says. "It's learning how to play golf. Ask players in their teens or early 20s. They hit the ball pretty hard. As they get older, they learn to control their games."
Says Price, "[ Woods] will mature. If he continues to improve, he's going to be a pretty good player by the time he's 30."
Price, realizing how absurd that statement sounded, laughed when he finished. It seemed like nervous laughter.