All it took was a few words from Jack Nicklaus to get Tiger Woods to rediscover his awesome swing

Friday June 12th, 2009
At the Memorial, Woods flashed both accuracy and touch in his most complete showing since returning from surgery.
Fred Vuich/SI

Everything's faster in New York. On Monday morning, on the sports page of the New York tabs, Tiger's win at the Memorial was right there, alongside the Yankees and the Mets. (Woods Hi-Jacks Nicklaus' Tourney, exclaimed the Post.) New Yorkers, though, were on to the next thing: "Yeah, but can he win the Open?" That is, the U.S. Open, to be held next week at Bethpage Black, a vast oasis of fescue rough and magic-carpet fairway surrounded by dense Long Island suburbia. Woods won the 2002 U.S. Open there, in the days when his fist pumps could rattle trees. But this new Tiger, the one who won at Memorial — the one who drives it in play with three-woods and five-woods, who barely celebrates his hole-outs, who wins from the clubhouse, long before 60 Minutes starts ticking — who is this guy, and how did he suddenly get here?

Johnny Miller, the winner of the 1973 U.S. Open and lead analyst at Bethpage for NBC, has long been Tiger's most incisive critic (and, at times among the microphone crowd, his only objective fan). Last week, before the Memorial, Miller said in an interview, "I've had a dream about 20 times where he comes to me and asks me for a lesson." In Miller's dream he instructs Woods to hit shots with a slight pause at the top of his swing, as he did from 1997 through 2000. Miller also asks Woods to soften the squat move he has been making in recent years, where his head and body come too close to the ball on the downswing and he gets in his own way.

Miller, and others steeped in swing mechanics, watched in amazement as Tiger played some of the worst shots of his career this year at the Masters, at the Quail Hollow tournament in Charlotte and at the Players. In those tournaments Woods let loose a year's worth of f bombs. His postround practice sessions, where an elite player can quickly pinpoint problems and turn things around, were often brief, in deference to a left knee still in recovery from ACL surgery following the 2008 U.S. Open. Tiger didn't say much about the state of the swing in his interviews. (He seldom does.) But his coach, Hank Haney, may have revealed more than he intended in an interview last month with SI.

Haney said, "I don't understand why everybody thinks I'm going to get fired. Am I going to get fired when he asks me to come to Isleworth? Is he going to fire me when we go to Bethpage? During the Yankees game we're going to afterward? In August when he releases his new video where I'm his teacher?

"He has a new leg. He has a new swing because his knee isn't flopping around like it once was. The media give him no slack. It wears me out, and it wears him out as well. I told Tiger about all this crap about me being fired, and he smiled and said, 'Welcome to my world.'"

It's easy, and maybe correct, to see Haney's mini-rant as a by-product of Tiger's erratic play. Haney knows that Miller, and prominent teaching pros, have been second-guessing what Tiger was doing, and what Haney was teaching.

But then Tiger went to Ohio, and there everything changed. Jack set him free. Nicklaus, generally straightforward when talking to reporters, said he felt that Tiger, in his return from surgery, was making a swing that protected his left knee. Presented with Nicklaus's observation, Tiger acknowledged for the first time that he was, in fact, doing just that. He went from the press tent to the practice tee at Muirfield Village and started hitting balls, in the rain, and took some of the most beautiful, rhythmic swings he has made in years, with much less dip. It was as if he had absorbed Johnny's dream lesson by osmosis. It was this new-and-improved swing that allowed Tiger to win at Memorial.

But ball striking alone will not win you a U.S. Open. You must putt, too. At the Memorial, Tiger's putting was spotty, but the putting guru Stan Utley, who uses Tiger's stroke as his model, thinks Woods will putt well at Bethpage. He has seen glimpses of Woods's putting this year on TV and in person and has concluded that his stroke is as sound as ever. Mechanics, Utley noted, come back quickly from a layoff. Feel is slower to return.

At Bethpage, Utley said, Woods will have one additional and important thing going for him: The greens there are poa annua, the grass on which Tiger grew up putting, and the type of grass on which he putted so well last year at Torrey Pines. The ball tends to bounce on poa annua, Utley said, and Tiger hits his putts with a slight (and ideal) hooking action that encourages the ball to hug the grass, hold its line and finish at the bottom of the hole.

Reclaiming his feel is a work in progress for Tiger, and that applies not only to the putter, but also to his entire body. Last year Woods won the U.S. Open on a left leg that was falling apart, but at least he knew what it could and couldn't do. One of the difficult things for Woods at this year's Open will be to know exactly what he can and cannot count on his left knee to do, particularly when playing out of deep rough.

The former Ryder Cupper Brad Faxon had ACL surgery on his right knee in 2005 and again in '07. Faxon says that since his surgeries he has not felt like his old self. Tiger, likely, doesn't either.

"You're talking about someone who can tell the difference between a D1 and D2 swing weight," Faxon said. "You take a world-class athlete like Tiger, who is superattuned to everything that's going on with his body, it's going to feel different." Knowing what your body will do under the extreme pressure of a U.S. Open is a guessing game during the best of times. Now add a new knee to the mix.

Eventually, Faxon said, Tiger will figure out exactly what the knee can do. But it will take time. That's Faxon's point. The U.S. Open is golf at its most extreme. Tiger's recovery — even with his two wins this year, a career for most golfers — is still in its infancy, and U.S. Open rough awaits him.

Rees Jones, the architect who oversaw the extensive renovations of Bethpage Black for the '02 Open, and who tweaked it for next week's championship, thinks the course will suit Woods now more than ever. His pick to win is Tiger, just as it was the last time the Open went to the A.W. Tillinghast course. Jones is a believer in horses for courses, and now, he said, the course suits Woods even more than it did before.

Bethpage Black this year is more than 200 yards longer than last time, and Jones predicts that Woods will be one of the few players to reach the par-5 13th, likely to play at more than 600 yards, in two shots. Under new USGA guidelines that were not in place in 2002, the length of the rough is now graduated, going from 1 1/2 inches to 2 1/2 inches to four inches, getting progressively longer the farther you stray from the fairway. Woods, with his immense upper-body strength, should be able to play more shots out of the first cut of rough and even the second cut than most of the rest of the field — if he trusts his knee.

Jones notes one other thing. Woods likes public courses, and he likes courses on which he has won before. He has multiple wins at St. Andrews, Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach, all public courses. He won a U.S. Open on his first trip to Bethpage Black, a public course. And now he's going back, with the divots from his win at Jack's tournament still healing.

How fitting, the whole Jack connection. Tiger's goal, since childhood, has been to break Nicklaus's record of 18 professional majors. Tiger needs four to tie, five to win. Big Jack fully expects Tiger to get to 19 (and he welcomes it). "I think the pace he's on, and the quality player he is, that even if he doesn't play well, he'll still probably break my record," Nicklaus said. "But he still has to do it. I mean, it's not a gimme. He has to win another five majors. You start out anybody's career at age 33 and say you're going to win five majors, the answer for most people is probably going to be no. But in Tiger's case, it's probably yes. He is such a focused young man, and his work ethic is so good, he'll probably do it in the next three years."

Even Jack never had a year like Tiger did in 2000, when Woods won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15, the British Open at St. Andrews by eight and the PGA Championship in a playoff, plus six other Tour events. In a press conference before the start of the Memorial last week Woods was asked how his golf in 2000 compares with his golf today.

"I'm a far better player now than I was in 2000, no doubt," he said. "I certainly have more shots. I understand how to play the game of golf infinitely better now than I did then." On that basis, you might expect him to win at Bethpage by 16.

Four days later, his Memorial trophy in hand, Woods said, "It's nice to play this well going into the U.S. Open. This is how you have to hit it to win U.S. Opens. Especially at Bethpage. That golf course is as big as they come."

He also said Haney's job was secure and praised him as a teacher and a friend. And that Nicklaus is the greatest of all time. He talked about his goal of getting to 19.

That's the whole point: getting to 19. Yes, he's won twice this year, but those wins will be footnotes when all is said and done. The real headline of the year for Tiger is that he's 0 for 1 in majors in 2009. By dusk on Father's Day he expects to be 1 for 2. He'll view anything else as a failure. Can you imagine this guy as the owner of the Yankees? He'd make you forget all about George Steinbrenner.

Anyway, Nicklaus, a man not prone to bluster, is predicting that Tiger's 15th major will be a New York story. A stab at the big type:

'PAGE-ING NUMBER 15:
TIGER TAMES THE BEAST!\n

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