With questions to answer on his return, Tiger is too short for the majors
Paul Krishnamurty believes injury lay-off makes Tiger Woods considerably less likely to overhaul Jack Nicklaus' record of major wins and wonders if the great man might even struggle to retain his world number one ranking....
This time last year, all the talk concerned whether Tiger Woods could achieve golf's ultimate goal - the ever elusive Grand Slam.
The great man himself said it was 'easily within reason'. And whatever happened in the short-term, nobody doubted he would eventually overhaul Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 Major titles. Despite furthering his reputation as one of the all-time great sportsmen, let alone golfers, the narrative has changed quite dramatically since.
While nobody serious is suggesting Tiger is finished, it is not now unreasonable to consider how much longer he has left at the game's peak and the Nicklaus goal suddenly looks some way off. Having missed six months so far with a career-threatening knee injury, Woods even faces a tough fight to hold on to his World No.1 spot.
The injury should not be under-stated. Ernie Els suffered an identical injury three years ago and has never been the same player since. Months after what he now accepts was too swift a return, Ernie was complaining that his knee was struggling to cope with walking 18 holes.
According to Team Tiger, he started hitting shots in December and is well ahead of schedule. On that basis then, its full steam ahead and we can expect to see him back at the latest by March. But whatever confidence is displayed publicly, (and Tiger is not about to give his nearest rivals a glimmer of hope), nobody knows how much his reconstructed knee will affect his performance.
It seems certain that Woods will line up at the Masters in April, but only time will tell if he's right to return so quickly.
Even if the injury isn't an issue, it's asking an awful lot to expect Tiger to return to his absolute best immediately when he hasn't played competitively for so long. In fairness, it must be said that Woods has proved in the past that he doesn't need to be at his absolute best to win. If ever you needed evidence to show just how far Tiger had pulled ahead of the rest before the injury, consider his two performances in Majors last year. Second in the Masters when playing well below his best, and winning the US Open whilst seriously injured. Fully-fit, he'd probably have won by 10.
Nevertheless, assuming his dominant position quickly will be no mean feat as the opposition has improved in his absence. Padraig Harrington will head to Augusta chasing his third Major in a row, and his fourth in the last seven. He will be desperate to nail any dubious claims that his achievements are diminished because Woods wasn't around, and any good form in the build-up could spark a serious gamble for the Masters. Similarly, Sergio Garcia stepped up a level in 2008, and is likely to catch the imagination of punters. There's also rapidly improving youngsters like Antony Kim and Camilo Villegas to consider.
Woods' current quotes depend on the opposition trading in double-figures, so should Pod or Garcia maintain their form they should drive out the price of the favourite. For this reason among others, I'm a layer until I see good reason to change course. Given the uncertainties, and the fact that he'll have played at most three tournaments before the Masters, [3.7] is just too short. If he struggles in his first tournaments back, those odds will drift significantly. Even if he just fails to win impressively, its hard to see them shortening.
While he loves Augusta and has a superb course record, Tiger has only won one of the last six Masters. That identical statistic also applies to the US Open, for which he has already traded at [3.65].
Following the same strategy in the later Majors is obviously riskier, because so much could change in the meantime. But again I'd have to be a layer at [4.0] for the Open. Layers usually stand their ground on Tiger in the Open, because while he's won three titles, his record is patchier here than the other Majors. All three titles were gained at courses that lacked penal rough and perfectly suited his talents; St Andrews and Hoylake. On other, tougher, links courses he's looked much less dominant.
Woods has actually failed to get into contention in five of eleven Open appearances. I'm expecting this year's venue, Turnberry, to be closer to courses like Carnoustie, Troon and Muirfield where he's struggled in the past.