UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Two days before teeing off in his 19th career U.S. Open, Tiger Woods was asked, “What makes you believe that you can get it done this week?”
It was a fair question, and is what’s on everyone’s mind this week at Chambers Bay. Woods has struggled this season. He's skulled chips at his season-debut at the Phoenix Open en route to a missed cut, withdrawn from the Farmers Insurance Open after more of the same short game woes and disappeared for two months before the Masters. He last played in the Memorial Tournament, where he shot a career-worst round of 85 before finishing 71st.
The question was framed with the introductory clause of “You’re obviously here to win…” knowing that disclaimer was necessary. This inquiry probed a bit deeper. Tell us why we should believe you’re going to be back on this podium this weekend, much less on Sunday at the winner’s press conference.
Woods stared back and – without pausing to consider an alternative – quickly replied, “I’ve got three of these.”
The confident response was a statement of fact. Only four players have more U.S. Open titles than Woods (Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus). Woods and Hale Irwin have three each, but lucky for Woods, Irwin isn’t in the field. More than anyone in the tournament, Woods, 39, understands what it takes to win the major that requires the most mental toughness of them all.
Will the confidence in his pedigree be enough for Woods to win his first major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines? It has to be.
More than his uppercut fist pump after a made putt or his red golf shirt donned every Sunday, Woods’ transcendent trait was confidence. Confidence in himself, his golf swing, his ability to mentally defeat an opponent before a tee was stuck in the ground.
The fist pumping makes an appearance every now and then, albeit in drastically different circumstances – most recently after a putt to make the cut at the Players Championship. He still wears red on Sunday, even though this week’s shirt is a striped pullover that’s closer to pink than red. The confidence remains in full force. Even after going 0-for-21 in his last major appearances, the confidence isn’t shaken.
Woods actually thinks he can win this tournament.
“From my very first one to now, it's the same,” Woods said. “I want to win these championships. I love them. I love playing them.”
In his pre-Masters press conference, he exuded similar confidence. He thought he could win. Ultimately, he finished T17 after a Sunday 73.
“Where if you look at how I played at Phoenix and Torrey, I'm sure most people have thought I was probably crazy to think I could probably win the Masters,” Woods said. “But I really felt like I could.”
His first season with new swing coach Chris Como hasn’t produced immediate results. Woods has been willing to trade short-term suffering for long-term gain. After changing his swing after winning the 1997 Masters, Woods struggled afterwards for a short period. He was inconsistent in the immediate aftermath of switching from Butch Harmon to Hank Haney in 2004 and fell off dramatically after leaving Haney for Sean Foley in 2010.
“I've done this before when I've made changes in the past I've struggled through it,” Woods said. “I’ve come out on the good side. It's more of a commitment than anything else. I had to make a commitment, and I have. And things are starting to come together piece by piece.”
With past swing changes, Woods was able to work his way back to the top, or somewhere close to it. Less than one year in his partnership with Como, Woods is confident his changes are about to produce results.
“I wouldn't have made the changes if I wasn't devoted to the game of golf and winning golf tournaments,” Woods said. “I want to be out here. I want to play. I want to compete, and I want to win. And to me it's so much fun having a chance to win on the back nine on Sunday. There's plenty of times where I haven't gotten it done. But there are also times when I have gotten it done. But you've got to be there. This year certainly has been a struggle. But for me to go through what I went through at Torrey and Phoenix, to come back and do what I did at Augusta gave me a lot of confidence going forward.”
Woods never seriously contended at Augusta, but made it through the week without yipping a pitch over the green or having to chip with a 4-iron. In the next two months, Woods played two events, never contended, never broke 70 and finished T69 and 71.
That hasn’t changed expectations for this week, or for the rest of his career.
When asked if he had what it took to get back to the top of the game, Woods simply replied, “Yeah.”
A one word reply, filled with confidence.