The U.S. Open is a lot of things. It is the so-called toughest test in golf. It is a tournament that anyone can play (in theory). It is also the last time Tiger Woods hoisted a major championship trophy. And just as we discuss firm greens, deep rough, and the relativity of par this time of year, we now also have to examine the years since Tiger's last major victory.
It has now been seven years since that victory at Torrey Pines. At the time, it was a heroic effort that stunned pundits and doctors alike. On a broken leg, Tiger Woods endured the toughest test in golf and prevailed in a 19-hole playoff against journeyman Rocco Mediate. At the time, it seemed Tiger was well on track to win several more majors and zip past Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championship victories.
But in a bizarre and surreal seven years since, Tiger Woods' life and playing career have taken quite a few twists and turns. That he's gone major-less is only part of the wild ride.
By the end of the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger had nothing left. He limped and strained his way through Torrey Pines and miraculously won, despite the fact that he should have been on an operating table long before the end of the tournament. Most thought Tiger would heal and come back just as strong. Little did any of us know, this was the beginning of one of the most bizarre seven-year periods in golf history.
After the triumph at Torrey Pines, Tiger made his way to that operating table, had ACL surgery and shut it down for the rest of the year.
When Tiger made his return to golf, it was basically business as usual for the world's best golfer. Six wins in 2009 showed that Tiger was still capable of greatness. But as the season went on, there was some ominous foreshadowing that most (myself included) didn't recognize at the time.
In late July, Tiger missed the cut at the British Open. Previously, Woods had only missed one major cut in his professional career. That missed cut came, understandably, shortly after the death of his father Earl.
Tiger won his next two times out, which possibly masked some of his forthcoming major issues.
At the 2009 PGA Championship, the greatest "closer" the game had ever seen lost a 54-hole lead to relative unknown Y.E. Yang. It was the first time that Woods failed to convert such a lead at a major championship. At the time, most said, "well, this was bound to happen at some point." Looking back, though, it was the first time we saw Tiger feel the pressure of his record chase. As the years went on, we would see Tiger fail to convert during several more weekends. Little-known Y.E. Yang was the start of that.
(Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
The rest of 2009 for Tiger represents possibly the biggest scandal and fall from grace we have ever seen in sports. As I am sure you know, Tiger's months (and possibly years) of infidelity came to a head and his personal life unraveled as he smashed his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant outside his Florida home.
That car accident signaled the end of his 2009 season as he tried to get his personal life in order.
After months out of the public spotlight to repair his personal life, Tiger returned to golf at a place where he will always be welcomed, Augusta National. Tiger battled his way through the Masters and somehow finished tied for fourth, despite the fact that he hadn't played competitive golf all year.
Another T4 at the U.S. Open gave golf fans hope that the old Tiger would be back soon, but it just wasn't meant to be in 2010. Tiger faded on several weekends throughout the summer of 2010 and it was a winless, and major-less year for Woods.
This year essentially began the Sean Foley era of Woods' career. Throughout the winter, Tiger overhauled his swing yet again. When he came to the Masters, he looked primed to make a run. After dazzling us with some amazing shots, Woods could not catch eventual champ Charl Schwartzel and finished tied for fourth again.
After the Masters, Tiger revealed that he had strained his Achilles and MCL while hitting a shot from underneath the famed Eisenhower Tree. Missing the U.S. and British Opens, along with dismal play after that, caused Tiger to tumble down the world rankings.
It was another winless year for Tiger.
After more than a full year working with Sean Foley, Tiger showed real progress early in 2012. He contended in Abu Dhabi and at Pebble Beach. But continuing the trend from 2009, we saw Tiger struggle on the weekend -- although this time, it was more obvious.
In 2009, it was seen as a fluke. As 2012 moved on, it was becoming a pattern. And while he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Memorial, he stumbled down the stretch at the U.S. Open at Olympic. Many started wondering if the pressure of catching Jack Nicklaus had finally overwhelmed Woods. It's a theme that continues today.
This was the year Tiger fans had been waiting for. Woods started 2013 like he'd been shot out of a cannon. He won three times before the Masters, a first in his legendary career. After regaining the world No. 1 ranking, Woods was set to return to the majors winner circle.
But then Tiger took a questionable drop, blasted a flagstick, and found the water in one of the most enduring images in Masters history. "Given Adam Scott's final margin of victory (4 shots), one could conclude that the drop, the ensuing penalty, and shot into the water cost Woods a fifth green jacket."
As the summer went on, Woods once again failed to keep pace at the U.S. Open, faded on Sunday of the British Open and also dealt with various ailments throughout the season.
When we hit the FedExCup Playoffs, the "back" phase of Tiger's career began. The actual body part, that is.
Woods barely played in early 2014. On March 31 he shut it down to recover from back surgery, forcing him to miss the Masters for the first time in his professional career.
He returned to golf at his own Quicken Loans National but soon after was sidelined again. A missed cut there began a truly terrible, injury-plagued stretch of golf: A 69th place finish at the Open, a withdrawal at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, another missed the cut at the PGA Championship.
After taking another long stretch off, Tiger returned to the Hero World Challenge, in December, and was forced to deal with a previously unthinkable problem: the yips had crept into his short game. Flubbed and shanked chip shots peppered Tiger's rounds. Along with his various physical ailments, Tiger was now suffering from a lack of confidence as well.
As Tiger's career has progressed, we have always believed that he will be "back." In 2015, a year that has featured Tiger's two worst scores as a pro, many are now questioning this belief. As he works with another swing coach, battles two-way misses off the tee, the occasional flubbed chips and an overall sullen attitude, it seems possible that we have already seen the best from Tiger Woods. His chase of Jack Nicklaus appears to be all but finished.
The U.S. Open began with Cole Hammer, a 15-year-old qualifier, saying his first real memory of the championship was Tiger's 2008 win at Torrey. It was a startling reminder of how much time has passed since Tiger last won a major, currently the singular purpose of his career.
As the U.S. Open begins, it is hard to say what we will see from Tiger. But at this point we expect more bad than good. The past seven years have given us too much ammo and material to think otherwise.