Commentary

St. Andrews advantage not so clear

Originally Published: July 13, 2010
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- You'll hear these numbers repeated all week, so get used to 'em now.

In 2000, Tiger Woods romped here at the Old Course, prevailing by an 8-stroke margin. Five years later, he monopolized the leaderboard once again, winning by 5 over the closest competitor.

That's two consecutive tournaments on this historic track that have essentially turned into coronations for the world's No. 1-ranked player.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Stuart Franklin/Getty ImagesIn his two Open Championship victories at St. Andrews, Tiger Woods has won by a combined 13 shots.

For his part, Woods has never shied away from his personal affection for the appropriately termed "Home of Golf." Just last month, he was asked what his preference would be for all four major championship venues in a given year. His response: "I'd probably pick St. Andrews all four times."

No doubt that idea was hatched not only from his fondness toward the course, but his previous triumphs. And so on the eve of Woods' third career Open Championship appearance as a professional here, it's been suggested that we attempt to uncover the reason for his dominance on the links. In essence, the thesis of this column is: why Tiger owns St. Andrews.

Based on those past performances, it's an assignment that might sound easier than searching for sand in the Road Hole bunker, except for one wee bit of a problem.

It isn't true.

Of course, nobody can debate Woods' command over each of the previous two Old Course editions of the Open. In both instances, he was far and away the best player in the field that week, relegating everyone else to playing for second place.

And that is exactly the point.

In 2000 and '05, Tiger happened to win at St. Andrews, but it had less to do with the course itself than his ultra-impressive performance level. The R&A could have contested the event at Carnoustie or Turnberry or Angus MacDonald's Pitch'N'Putt during those years. In every case, the result would have been the same, with Woods collecting the Claret Jug on Sunday afternoon.

Of course, ask the three-time Open champion whether he buys into that theory, and you'll receive an answer that's more technical than simple.

"This golf course requires placement. I mean, you really have to place the ball correctly. Just because it's wide off the tee doesn't mean you can blow it all over the place. You have to hit the ball in the correct spots," Woods said Tuesday. "And the two years that I've played well here, I've done that. I've managed my game really well and, more importantly, I've lag putted beautifully."

What does it mean for the upcoming version of the event, as Tiger attempts to pull off a St. Andrews trifecta? Well, maybe nothing at all.

Similar conjecture was presented exactly four weeks ago in advance of the U.S. Open. In his previous appearance in that event at host venue Pebble Beach, Woods made history, winning by 15 strokes a decade earlier. This time around, however, other than a torrid back nine in Round 3, he looked rather ordinary, failing to seriously contend on Sunday while finishing in a share of fourth place.

Applying the same logic to the current tournament, it shouldn't be resolved that Woods will win once again simply based on the fact that he's done it before.

Then again, such success doesn't hurt, either.

"When you've won tournaments on certain courses, you can putt those greens -- and he can putt these greens here," said Ernie Els, who finished runner-up to Woods in 2000. "So I think he's going to have a very good week. He'll be a factor."

"Chances are, Tiger will be right there on Sunday afternoon," 1989 Open champion Mark Calcavecchia said. "He's still the favorite."

That's true not only in the eyes of many players, but the oddsmakers, too. According to at least one betting parlor, Woods is currently a 6-to-1 favorite to win this tournament. Those odds are greater than his usual number but still place him prohibitively in front of the likes of Els, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose, each of whom is about three times less likely to win, according to the books.

Those would be quizzical odds for any player who, like Woods, had gone winless in a half-dozen starts so far this season, but we can throw out the records when it comes to Tiger.

Well, the current one, at least.

It goes without saying that Woods' previous victories at St. Andrews have assisted his installation as the pretournament favorite. Although it's well within reason to believe he can claim a third straight Claret Jug at this course, the notion shouldn't come directly from the fact that he's won the past two.

After all, in those weeks, it was highly likely that he was going to prevail on any course, any place, any time.

This week, though? Just because Woods has won on the Old Course in the past, don't expect any specific momentum to carry him into the winner's circle.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.