<
>

Tiger's note to self: Do not try this at home

It used to be that Tiger Woods put fear into his opponents by bashing the ball unfathomable lengths. Now he is doing so by hitting the ball like Jeff Sluman.

No knock on Sluman, who put together a pretty fine Open Championship himself at Royal Liverpool, finishing tied for 41st at age 48. It just so happens that Woods and Sluman were listed one after the other in the driving distance stats for the tournament. And well down that list, we might add.

Woods averaged 290 yards off the tee, pedestrian because the ball was bounding forever down the Hoylake fairways, with even short hitters able to poke them 300 yards, if they so chose.

But that, of course, is the point. Woods chose not to do that. He could have bombed his drives over the fairway bunkers in an attempt to set up short-iron approach to rock-hard greens. Instead, he decided a safe, conservative approach that kept the ball in the fairway was the key.

This is not something to try at home.

And it is not likely that Woods will employ such a strategy next month at Medinah, where he won the PGA Championship in 1999 and where he will attempt to win his 12th major. Soft fairways probably won't allow it.

But it does open the door to a more conservative game plan in the future, one that seeks accuracy over length, especially when being in the fairway is crucial to success.

Unlike Phil Mickelson, who had won three of the previous 10 major championships and narrowly missed a fourth last month, Woods had never seen Royal Liverpool until a few days before the 135th Open Championship.

Mickelson made a special trip to England, returned to the United States, then arrived early to go through his pre-major routine of mapping out the course -- a strategy that has served him well.

Woods, meanwhile, knew nothing about the course until he arrived for his first practice round on July 15. He had not read about it, nor seen photos. And he was ridiculed by the British media when he said, "All I know is it's in Liverpool.'' Actually, as Woods learned, it is across the Mersey River from Liverpool.

Not that it mattered.

Woods employed what some deemed a radical strategy in winning his third Open Championship. He hit just one driver for the entire tournament, and that came in the first round on the par-5 16th hole, which he went on to birdie despite a wayward drive. For the most part, Woods hit 2-iron off the tee, sometimes a 3-wood. He effectively played the tournament using just 13 clubs.

For a golfer who overpowered the Old Course at St. Andrews a year ago, it was a completely different plan. And it worked.

"I think it took him until about the second hole of his first practice round to figure out that's what he was going to do,'' said Hank Haney, Woods' coach.

Actually, it was more like the second practice round … but you get the idea.

Woods quickly learned he was better off keeping his drives behind the treacherous pot bunkers that litter Hoylake -- even at the risk of having to hit long irons into par-4 holes, a rarity in today's power game that typically requires only short irons.

During the first two rounds, Woods was typically 40 yards behind playing partners Nick Faldo and Shingo Katayama, a surreal sight. Now he knows how many of his peers feel. To be outdriven by great lengths can be demoralizing, although in Woods' case, it didn't bother him a bit. That was his intention.

For the tournament, he led the field in driving accuracy.

"When I was playing the golf course, I would hit a couple of drives, and the drive would go 350, 370 yards,'' Woods said of the extremely dry course. "How can you control that out there? You can't control that. They're hard enough to hit as it is, and you add driver and they go that far, now how hard is it to hit?''

Woods reasoned that the players who elected to fly their drives over the bunkers would not have that much of an advantage. "They're going to have shorter clubs on the greens, but a lot of these flags, you can't attack with wedges,'' he said. "I felt the conservative approach was the way to go.''

Some figured that Woods was doing this because he lacked faith in his driver, which deserted him at Winged Foot during the U.S. Open and has been the source of consternation, despite success.

But Haney said Woods told him he had his best driving week in five years at the Western Open. Still, it makes you wonder … should Tiger keep this strategy?

It is unlikely that Woods would hit so few drivers at Medinah, which will measure some 7,500 yards and probably play every bit of it. Soft, tree-lined fairways won't allow for many irons off the tee. He will need the length that a driver provides on many holes.

But perhaps there or at other venues, Woods will be a bit more selective off the tee. Maybe he analyzes holes where it doesn't hurt to hit a long approach, and elects to stay back, sacrificing distance for accuracy.

Not that there aren't risks.

At Hoylake, Woods often left himself more than 180 yards to par-4s, routinely in the 200-yard range to the front of the green. Even for him, that does not guarantee he will hit the ball on the green, or even close.

That means he had to be striking his 3 through 5 irons very well. He was, as is borne out by the fact that he was tied for second in the field in greens in regulation at 80 percent.

"It's probably one of the best ball-striking weeks I've had as far as control,'' he said. "If I wasn't hitting it well, it would have been pretty difficult around here. This golf course you had to really control your ball in order to have a chance. And I was able to do that the entire week.''

Now we will see if he employs a similar strategy in the future. Or if others try to copy it.



Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.