Tiger Woods, as even the most casual of golf fans is aware, last won a major championship in 2008, when he limped to a U.S. Open playoff victory over Rocco Mediate while playing on a broken leg and a torn ACL.
On the strength of seven PGA Tour wins in the past 15 months, including four in just eight events this year, the world No. 1 enters this week at Merion as the prohibitive favorite to end his five-year majors skid and get back on track to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ all-time cache of 18 grand slam event titles.
Even after the clunker of his recent T65 finish at the Memorial Tournament -- on a course he has owned over the years -- oddsmakers and pundits overwhelmingly fancy Tiger to conquer the Philadelphia-area track with which the 78-time PGA Tour winner is not all that familiar. He has played the short, sodden course only a few times -- in stark contrast to Adam Scott, the reigning Masters champ and one of Woods’ opening-rounds playing partners who made it his mission to scout Merion well ahead of Open week.
“I came up about three weeks ago and played a couple of rounds, so I have seen the course a fair bit. And I've got a fairly good understanding," Scott told reporters on Monday. "You'd like to feel like you're a local going out there."
Woods got a few licks in before torrential rains postponed practice sessions, though he believed his first look at Merion -- a round in pouring rain -- would serve him well on a course that has been flooded by downpours since last week.
“I came up on Tuesday of Memorial and it was rainy, the ball wasn’t flying very far,” Woods told reporters Tuesday. “I’m hitting the ball to the same spots now because it’s rained and it’s soft ... It’s going to be the same that we played on Tuesday.”
Despite Woods’ lack of long-term knowledge of the 101-year-old layout, old pal Notah Begay III liked his former Stanford teammate’s chances.
“It’s going to take some high-quality performances and that’s exactly what we’ve seen from Tiger Woods in the last three or four months,” Begay, a Golf Channel analyst, observed. “He’s got more wins than anybody this year and the way that he navigated himself around, laying off the driver, hitting a lot of precise iron shots, and the way that he finished at the Players Championship, hitting a beautiful 5-wood draw around the corner and then hitting a high 8-iron draw into that green, leads me to believe that he’s here to win and he’s practicing the shots that he needs to practice.”
Indeed, after Woods won at TPC Sawgrass, and with his health no longer a question and his putting better than ever (he ranked first in strokes-gained before drifting to fifth after Jack’s tourney), it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would capture his fourth U.S. Open trophy this week.
“I'm at a point now that ... I have a better understanding of how to fix [his Sean Foley-rebuilt swing] on the fly and make adjustments,” Woods said ahead of the Memorial. “I think that's what you're seeing this year is that I've gotten more precise and I've been able to work on other parts of my game and made them strengths.”
And then came the stinker at Memorial, where his second-round 79 equaled the second-highest score of his career and where he controlled his tee shots, but struggled with his irons and short game. He’ll need both of the latter and less of the former to contend at tight, 6,996-yard Merion, where players will rarely use driver.
Woods was unhappy with his total game at the Memorial and said immediately afterward that he had to work on “everything” to get ready for this week.
"You want everything clicking on all cylinders,” he said, “especially at the U.S. Open because everything is tested in the U.S. Open."
By Tuesday, his view of his Memorial effort had not softened.
“I didn’t play well, I didn’t putt well, I really didn’t do much that I was really pleased about,” Wood reiterated. “But it was just one of those weeks. It happens and you move on from there.”
For sure, the classic par-70 East Course that has been out of the majors rotation since 1981, will require the dead-on ball-striking abilities of past winners like Bobby Jones, who captured the Grand Slam here in 1930, and Ben Hogan, who famously maneuvered a 1-iron to victory not long after nearly dying in a car crash in 1950.
"If you look at the list of champions, they have all been really good shot-makers," Woods told reporters after playing 13 holes on Sunday. "You have to be able to shape the golf ball, and you have to be so disciplined to play the course."
Can Woods do just that and put last year’s blown 36-hole U.S. Open lead and the rotten luck of hitting that flagstick and the brain cramp that resulted in that controversial ball drop at Augusta in April behind him and get on with the business of overtaking Nicklaus? Or could the pressure of failing to haul in that 15th major in the past 60 months be getting to the once-unflappable Woods?
“As we talked a little about Augusta, he’s put an awful lot of pressure on himself,” two-time Open winner and ESPN analyst Andy North said during a recent teleconference. “I’m not quite sure that he might be putting more pressure on himself even now than he ever has, because he hasn’t won. I mean, he’s in a position right now very much like a good player is when he hasn’t won a major and he’s trying to win for the first time.”
For sure, North’s colleague and another winner of two Opens, Curtis Strange, wondered if what happened at Memorial weighed on Woods.
“He played so poorly on Saturday, and he used to not do that. Ever,” Strange said. “I think he has a lot of pressure from within to know that he has to be very good to win now.”
The key to the success of Woods’ week would be evident early on, chimed in Paul Azinger.
“When he’s winning and hitting it poorly ... he has this air of confidence and this air of calm and patience,” said Azinger. “When he knows he doesn’t have it, he’s kicking clubs around and you can read his lips ... That comes from within, the pressure from within.
“You’ll be able to see pretty early on if he’s patient with a slow start or if it’s getting to him,” Azinger added. “If it’s getting to him, I think he knows he’s not crushing the sweet spot.”
As for whether it has become harder for him to win a major during his drought than when he made it look simple, Woods took exception to the query.
“It wasn’t ever easy,” he said. “A lot of times, a lot of majors that I won were on either the first or second time I'd ever seen [the course]. So that -- it was never easy. The practice rounds are imperative. Doing scouting trips were very important, just like it is for this week. I came up here early. And getting a little bit of feel for the golf course, how it’s going to play this week. I had to do all that stuff then. But then I have to go out and execute and go out and win an event."
Woods said he looked forward to hooking up with Nos. 2 and 3, Rory McIlroy and Scott, in the first two rounds this week. He recalled the “electric” atmosphere that surrounded the threesome the first time he was part of a 1-2-3 grouping at the ’08 Open.
“I think it will be fantastic,” he said. “Normally we don’t get those types of pairings very often and when we do it just makes it that much more enjoyable for us as players.”
Teeing it up with golf’s current stars for a chance to have his name etched alongside the luminaries like Hogan and Jones, however, were merely side benefits for Woods, whose sole objective has never varied.
"I think that I just enter events to win, and that's it,” he said. “That's why I played as a junior, all the way through to now is just to try to kick everyone's butt. That to me is the rush. That's the fun. That's the thrill ... It’s fun.”