A great start for Tiger Woods, but this is far from over

Tiger Woods
Harry How/Getty Images
Tiger Woods made three birdies and two bogeys on Thursday.

SAN FRANCISCO -- I fear my distinguished colleague, young Alan Shipnuck, has been drinking too much with the senior management at Excel Sports Management. Mr. Shipnuck, in another space, argues that this national championship, on the tilted fairways of the Lake Course here at the Olympic Club, is over, simply because one Tiger Woods shot a one-under-par 69, swinging the club beautifully all the way.

If he wants Tiger, I’ll take the field. I feel semi-certain about that.

Of course, there’s a lot of nostalgia in play in just having this conversation. You all remember what it was like, back in the day (1997-2008), when the question at every major was the same: Tiger or the field, who you taking?

Emotionally, a lot of people gravitated toward Tiger, what with his 12-shot win at the ’97 Masters and his 15-shot win at the 2000 U.S. Open. He made you forget that you only have to win by one.

In the 46 consecutive majors Woods played in those years, he won 14 of them. Fourteen. His batting average was .304. That’s crazy high. It’s insanely high. But it’s not .501. In other words, even when he was at the height of his powers, there was no logical reason to take Tiger over the field.

Now this is a different thing, for a number of reasons. First, Alan is taking Tiger over the field on the basis of one sub-par round, plus his recent wins at Bay Hill and Memorial. My colleague Gary Van Sickle has been awarding this U.S. Open to Woods since Tiger holed out on 16 on Sunday at Jack’s place. So maybe the question here should be, How often does Tiger win a major when he breaks par in the first round? Does that get him closer to .501?

(Related Photos: Tiger on the cover of Sports Illustrated)

He’s broken par 20 times in first rounds in those 46 majors, and of those 20 he won nine. That’s incredible. But it’s also .450. (Yes, in five of the wins he opened with a score of even par or higher.) Ted Williams would have killed for .450. But as a betting man, with a .450 average you should still take the field over Tiger here at Olympic after one round.

But Alan’s take is not just rooted in the ruthless analysis of numbers. There’s emotion in his claim, too. I would argue that back in the day (’97 to ’08) Tiger was the best and, through much of that period, getting better. Now he’s one of the best and getting better. That’s a major difference. My own personal view is that Tiger Woods really is the best golfer in the game right now, but the World Golf Ranking will tell you that Luke Donald and Rory McIlory and Lee Westwood are ahead of him.

So after the first round, looking at the big board, we ask. If it’s Matt Kuchar and Tiger down the stretch, can Kooch win? If it’s Graeme McDowell, can he? If it’s Jim Furyk, can he? If it’s Justin Rose or Nick Watney or David Toms? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

It’s exciting, having Tiger smack-dab in the thick of it in the most demanding championship of all of golf. But this is way better than it used to be, when it was sort of pre-ordained, at times, that a Tiger win was coming.

Tiger played a great first round of golf on Thursday. He did one thing that surprised me. On 14, he missed a putt that was a little over a yard. His whole shutdown thing, back in the day, wasn’t based on his superior thinking. (He still has that.) His superior ball-striking. (He still has that.) His strength out of the rough. (He still has that.) His length. (He still has that.)

(Related Photos: Tiger's career at the U.S. Open)

No, it was rooted in his ruthless -- there’s that important word again -- ability to make virtually everything within four feet. Without that, the doors are open. They’re not wide open, but they’re open.

I’m taking the field. And anticipating a great three days.

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