SAN FRANCISCO – Beaten down at Augusta, now the man to beat at the U.S. Open.
The expectations that have followed Tiger Woods this year are a lot like the fairways at The Olympic Club – up, down, often sideways.
He couldn’t close out tournaments the way he once did. He lost his putting stroke. His left Achilles tendon might be more of a problem than he was letting on. He had his worst finish ever at the Masters. He missed a cut.
And in the midst of such a gloomy outlook, Woods won by five shots at Bay Hill and delivered an uppercut fist pump at Memorial when he chipped in for birdie to complete a stunning rally for his second win of the year.
So when the question came up Tuesday at the U.S. Open – whether Woods had to win a major to end such prognosticating – he all but rolled his eyes.
I think even if I do win a major championship, it will still be, You’re not to 18 yet’ or When will you get to 19?’ It’s always something with you guys, Woods said. I’ve dealt with that my entire career.
This U.S. Open figures to go a long way toward figuring out how close he is to returning to the top of golf.
Woods couldn’t stop talking about how the U.S. Open presents the toughest test players face all year – so tough that he probably won’t be talking to Phil Mickelson, his longtime rival who will be playing with him in the opening two rounds.
This is one of those championships that I think the guys talk the least to one another because it’s so difficult, he said.
Woods looks as equipped as ever.
Two weeks ago, he played so well at Muirfield Village that he was ranked in the middle-of-the-pack in putting and still rallied from four shots behind to win.
Just like that, he became the betting favorite at Olympic Club to get his 15th major and resume his pursuit of the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
Then again, his win at Bay Hill made him the pre-tournament rage at the Masters, and he tied for 40th.
I guess lately, we don’t know what to expect from him, Steve Stricker said. When he wins, we’re all eager to look ahead and think that he’s going to be back to where he was in the early 2000s or whenever he was at the top of his game.
Olympic is all about hitting it in the fairway, and the right spots on the green.
The golf course is longer than when Woods tied for 18th in 1998, though that isn’t the biggest change. The greens have been resurfaced and roll so fast that it’s difficult to get the ball close. Plus, the USGA shaved some areas off the green to form large collection areas. A slight miss could send the ball some 30 yards away.
Another wrinkle was putting Woods and Mickelson together, along with Masters champion Bubba Watson, for the opening rounds. Together, they have won 113 and 18 majors.
I get excited to play with Tiger. I love it, Mickelson said. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. ... The one player I’m most concerned about, if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me, is Tiger.