Yet nothing he’s ever experienced in 41 years compares to that Saturday in 2002 at Muirfield.
“It was the worst weather I’ve ever played golf in,” Harrington said of the vengeful conditions that greeted the leaders in the third round of the British Open.
“I have played in conditions that were unplayable that weren’t as bad as that day, and it wasn’t unplayable. There was no reason why that was unplayable. Yet I’ve played in conditions that were unplayable that I’d prefer to be in.”
It was unplayable enough that the greatest golfer on the planet at the peak of his skills had his calendar slam blown away in the 30 mph winds and rain. The temperature was not many degrees higher than the 42 strokes Tiger Woods went out in. By the time he left the 14th green 11-over for the day and the gale softened, his historic quest was done.
“Mother Nature beat Tiger in the end, that was it,” Nick Faldo said that afternoon. “He was out in the worst of it, and not even Tiger can beat that.”
In July 2002, beating Woods in a major championship was mostly a rumor. He had won seven of the previous 11 majors – including that year’s Masters Tournament and U.S. Open – before heading to Muirfield intent on quieting critics who didn’t consider his wrap-around slam in 2000-01 legitimate. That plan was destroyed by the worst round of his career at that point – an 81 that included seven bogeys and two double bogeys in his first 14 holes.
“I think sometimes the media and everybody tend to lose perspective on how difficult it is to win a major championship,” Woods said then.
That’s all too apparent in 2013 as Woods readies for his return to Muirfield this week. Still the world’s No. 1 as he was then, Woods hasn’t won a major in five full years dating back to the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Injuries forced him to skip four in this stretch, including the British Opens in 2008 and ’11. A strained elbow that bothered him in June’s U.S. Open caused Woods to sit out the intervening month leading up to the British.
He said three weeks ago his health would be “good enough” to compete at Muirfield – where the forecast this time is as perfect as it gets in Scotland.
Eleven years ago nothing Woods did was good enough on that fateful Saturday. Woods, however, shrugs off his unfortunate draw.
“It’s just part of the deal when you play over there,” he said in June. “I think that’s the beauty of playing the Open Championship.”
Woods was very much in contention to extend his Grand Slam run after 36 holes. He went into the weekend 4-under par and tied for ninth, just two shots out of the five-way lead logjam that included eventual champion Ernie Els. By the time the day was over, Woods was tied for 67th and 11 shots behind Els. His final-round 65 – tying the lowest score of the day – meant nothing but an even-par finish.
“It was awful,” Woods said of the conditions that worsened shortly after his 2:30 p.m. tee time. “I was playing with (Mark) O’Meara at the time, and we were just about ready to go out, and it just hit. You can see this wall of rain coming in.
“The forecast was just for maybe some showers, no big deal, whatever. But no one had forecast for the windchill to be in the 30’s. … That’s the thing. It just got so cold that nothing was working, and no one was prepared for that. No one had enough clothes. Everything was soaked. It got to the point where the umbrella was useless. It was raining too hard, and it was too windy.”
Harrington, who was playing a few groups behind Woods, explained the challenge they faced during the heart of the round.
“What was happening is there were very strong winds, there was rain that wasn’t flooding the greens and there was seriously cold temperature,” Harrington said. “Now the seriously cold temperature meant the wind was accentuating the effect of what it was doing to the golf ball, and the wet meant the ball wasn’t rolling off the green. So you had two factors that were making the wind seem extreme – cold and wet – yet the wet was stopping the ball from rolling off. It was horrendous.”
Woods made his only birdie of the round on 17 and lipped out another birdie try on 18 as the weather eased. But it was too late (even for him) to salvage his chances. He was one of 10 players to shoot in the 80s that day. In the group in front of him, Colin Montgomerie carded 84 a day after shooting 64.
“Some of the guys who were in the later groups had a few more holes where they could make up a few more shots, and they did,” Woods said. “They survived the tougher conditions and made a couple of birdies coming in, which allowed them to be in the hunt going into the next day.”
The average score of the final 14 players on the course was a whopping 76.7. Els, who bogeyed four of the first six holes in the worst of the weather, made four birdies on the back to shoot 72. Harrington shot 76 and ultimately missed the playoff by a shot. A 75 would have been enough to keep Woods in the Grand Slam hunt heading to the PGA at Hazeltine, where he finished runner-up to Rich Beem despite finishing with four consecutive birdies.
“It was just one of those fluke days that you had to throw out,” Woods said in 2002. “It was just a brutal day for all of us. I played some of the toughest conditions I have ever seen.”
Els – who had bourn the brunt of Woods’ dominance for three years – wasn’t too disappointed that his solid 72 had created separation from his chief tormentor.
“It’s more comforting when he’s not around,” said Els, who will return as the reigning Champion Golfer of the Year after last year’s victory at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. “It means a lot, believe me.”
Woods ended up winning six more majors from 2005-08, so Muirfield was only a minor major setback.
Now starving for a taste of his former glory, Woods hopes a more pleasant Muirfield can kick-start a new chase for historic standards.