SAN FRANCISCO – After he was beaten down at Augusta, Tiger Woods is the man to beat at the U.S. Open.
The expectations following 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, and his left Achilles tendon might be more of a problem than he let on. He had his worst finish at the Masters. He missed a cut.
Amid 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, he all but rolled his eyes. Does Woods need to win a major to end the scrutiny?
“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,” he said. “I’ve dealt with that my entire career, ever since I was an amateur and playing all the way through and to professional golf.
“It hasn’t changed.”
Even so, this U.S. Open will go a long way toward determining how close Woods is to returning to top form.
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 first 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 he was middle-of-the-pack in putting and still rallied from four shots behind to win. He has talked about playing well in spurts, and conceded after that win, the 73rd of his PGA Tour career, that he hit the ball great.
Just like that, he became the betting favorite at Olympic Club to get his 15th major, and first since the 2008 U.S. Open, and resume his pursuit of the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
His win at Bay Hill, however, made him the rage at Augusta: He tied for 40th.
“I guess lately we don’t know what to expect,” 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. I think that just shows you the ability that he has, and what people see in the type of player that he is, and the type of shots that he’s been able to hit over the years, and the uncanny ability to just get it done and win golf tournaments.
“So when he does win one, I think that’s why we’re all quick to hop on his bandwagon.”
Woods sees a different trend. He managed his game at Bay Hill, in part because of a sloppy start by Graeme McDowell, which gave Woods a cushion and let him play the shots he needed to win.
“When I went into Augusta, I did not feel comfortable hitting the ball up,” Woods said. “And I got back into a lot of my old patterns. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. But that’s what made playing Muirfield so nice. I had those shots, and I was doing it the correct way. And I had compression, hitting the ball high and hitting it long. That was fun.”
Olympic is all about hitting the fairways and the right spots on the green.
The golf course is longer than when Woods tied for 18th in 1998, but that isn’t the biggest change. The greens have been resurfaced, and they roll so fast it’s difficult to get the ball close.
Woods and Mickelson will be with Masters champion Bubba Watson for the opening rounds. Together, they have 113 PGA Tour wins, including 18 majors, with Woods accounting for 14 of them.
This is far from a two-man show, and that goes beyond Watson.
Rory McIlroy is the defending champion. Luke Donald is No. 1 in the world and knows he will be taken more seriously if he can add a major. Ditto for Lee Westwood, No. 3 in the world, who has given himself more chances than Donald in majors and still hasn’t won.
But it starts with Woods, as it has since he won the first of his 14 majors.
“It’s going to be a wonderful test,” he said.