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Tiger puts on surprise clinic at Oakmont

OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) — Tiger Woods finally visited the famous "Church Pew" bunkers at Oakmont, but only to pose for a picture.

Birdies were rare, but the greens were still bumpy from being covered in snow only a week ago. And with a 15 mph gust in his face as he stood on the 288-yard eighth hole, he was resigned to breaking his self-imposed rule never to hit driver on a par 3. Stubborn as always, he stuck with a 3-wood that he hit as hard as he could, satisfied when it stopped 25 feet from the hole.

Woods spent the last two days at Oakmont, the premiere championship golf course in America that had been somewhat of a mystery to him. He didn't qualify for his first U.S. Open until the year after Ernie Els won at Oakmont in 1994, so this had been a course Woods only knew from newspaper clippings and television highlights.

"I like it," he said. "I can't recall many golf courses where you don't see the fairway and green on the same hole. Maybe at St. Andrews, but that's about it."

Monday also turned into quite a mystery for the 82 people who didn't know they would get to tag along.

They were American Express card members who paid $900 for an event called "2007 U.S. Open Preview Day," not realizing that it would include more than a round of golf and free lunch until Woods entered the room from a back door to stunned silence, followed by high-fives and then a standing ovation.

They were told they would get a seminar on how to prepare for a U.S. Open.

They had no idea their instructor would be the world's No. 1 player, with ABC Sports anchor Mike Tirico as the emcee.

"I hope you guys didn't get slaughtered out there," Woods told them before inviting them along for his third and final practice round.

For guys like Victor Novak, it got even better.

Novak missed out on the lottery to buy tickets for the U.S. Open, to be played June 14-17 for a record eighth time at Oakmont. So when American Express offered its Platinum and Century members a chance to spend a day at Oakmont, he signed up quickly.

He shot 93 in the morning. And he caddied for Woods for one hole in the afternoon.

"This is like dying and going to heaven," Novak said. "I'd like you guys to send the tape of this if you could. Because my wife won't believe me. My friends won't believe me. Nobody will believe this."

Jerry Cohen figured a great day would turn miserable when the airline lost his clubs, but Oakmont arranged for a set of rentals and he took a beating on one of the toughest courses in America, as almost everyone does at Oakmont.

Turns out he wasn't done playing.

Woods hit a stinger 3-iron on the 428-yard third hole with a slight breeze at his back, making sure he stayed out of the "Church Pew" bunkers that separate the third and fourth fairways, long strips of grass in the sand that look like benches.

"Can you hit one from the Church Pews?" someone said to him.

"No," Woods replied with a grin.

"Will you teach us how?" the man said.

"How to play out of it? You hit it right here," Woods said, pointing to the short grass in the fairway. "I go crazy when I watch guys in practice round play shots from a drop area. Why bring negativity into your thoughts? I only practice from where I expect to play."

He finally relented, going into the bunker and saying, "OK, I'm here," smiling for pictures. Before leaving, though, he asked Cohen to take a shot out of the sand, and it was the most nerve-racking shot he hit all day.

"Unbelievable," Cohen said. "I had no idea I would get this kind of experiences. Our caddies told us that Tiger was out here playing yesterday, and there was a rumor he might come back and play in the afternoon. I thought I might try to sneak a peek from out on the veranda. But this is like living a dream."

American Express in November became the first corporate partner in the USGA's 112-year history. The organization later signed a corporate deal with Lexus.

Woods invited unlimited questions as he walked the fairways and greens, at one point asking the security detail to drop the hand-held ropes so the customers could get closer. He told them the yardages he had left to the green, and why the yardage to the front of the green was most important at a U.S. Open with its typically firm surfaces.

Oakmont will play as long as 7,257 yards as a par 70, but it has at least two par 4s in which some players will try to drive the green. One of them is the 341-yard second hole, although Woods didn't bother. He took 4-iron.

"Remember the 4-iron I snapped at the Masters? I had it fixed," he said.

Woods tried to punch out from behind a tree on the 11th hole Sunday at Augusta National, slamming the club into the trunk of the pine immediately after hitting the ball, the shaft breaking in half.

Why not go for the green?

"I could probably, maybe ... but what's the point?" he said. "You try to make birdie when you can at the U.S. Open. But the whole idea is to try to avoid making bogey."

He was asked later if any of the players at the U.S. Open might try to drive the green.

"I hope so," Woods said, showing a little more insight into how he plans to play the course.

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