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Tiger Woods' major obstacle: He's good, but no longer dominant

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

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Tiger Woods plays a shot during a practice round at Muirfield before the British Open begins Thursday. (AP Pho …

GULLANE, Scotland – A shot here and a shot there, that's how Tiger Woods, as he preps for yet another major championship, explained the difference between winning Major No. 15 and sitting on 14 for five years and counting.

He specifically pointed to this year's Masters where bad luck turned a great shot into a killer. He hit a dead-on approach to 15 in Round 2 only to have it hit the pin, carom back into the water to spark Drop-gate that eventually led to an 8. Had his approached missed the pin, Tiger likely cards a birdie and there's a good chance he would have been wearing the green jacket that Sunday night and his run at Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors would be back on track.

But here's the thing about the what-ifs: Since when did Tiger Woods need a stroke here, a stroke there to win anything?

Of his 14 Major wins, seven were by three strokes or more and four by as many as five. Only three times has he won by a single stroke or been stretched to a playoff.

Sunday red didn't become a thing to fear because Tiger was a stroke better than the field. Winning by 12 at Augusta made it so; so did winning by 15 at Pebble Beach and winning by 8 at St. Andrews.

So when Tiger now says a shot here and shot there would make the difference, it's maybe the clearest sign yet that his run at Nicklaus is in serious jeopardy.

To understand why is to understand how Tiger got to 14: by dominating. You don't win that many times by the skin of your teeth. If you could, Phil Mickelson would have 10 majors instead of four. A shot here and shot there and Mickelson would have several U.S. Open wins, not zero.

But a shot here and shot there, when you need it, is a pretty big ask, especially when the competition is close enough to make it actually matter. Back in the early 2000s, that wasn't the case. Tiger didn't need a shot here or a shot there; hell, he could have afforded to give his closest competitor two shots here and two shots there and still won going away.

You get to 14 majors not by being perfect, but by being so good you can overcome some mistakes, and that's where Woods' game used to be. Now, he's good – back to No. 1 in the world – but he's no longer good enough to overcome the mistakes.

He's not where he was in the early 2000s and the competition is better, a combination that makes his margin of error so miniscule that three months later he's still wrestling with a single shot that could have cost him a green jacket.

"I think it's just a shot here and there," he explained. "It's making a key up-and-down here or getting a good bounce here, capitalizing on an opportunity."

So this is where Tiger Woods is now, as he prepares for Thursday's opening round of the British Open: he's banking on an up-and-down here, a good bounce there, hoping to capitalize on an opportunity instead of creating one himself. Somewhere around Muirfield, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott and Bubba Watson and Jason Day and Luke Donald are not shaking in their cleats.

Woods says the injury to his left elbow that nagged him at the U.S. Open isn't an issue anymore, though all eyes will be on him the first time he yanks a drive into the tall Muirfield grass.

He finished third in last year's Open, 28th the last time it was held at Muirfield in 2002.

"Even though I haven't won a major championship in five years, I've been there in a bunch of them where I've had chances," Tiger said Tuesday. "I just need to keep putting myself there and eventually I'll get some."

It's true. You put yourself in contention enough times and eventually you will win. And Tiger will likely win another major. But his dominance is gone, and to catch Jack he's going to rely on a whole lot of scrambling, and scrambling's a tough way to win majors.

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