It rained pretty much all day in Philadelphia on Tuesday. At Aronimink and at the Philadelphia Country Club and at Rolling Green, to name three local courses that have held major championships, not a creature was stirring, save for some men on tractors. At Merion, there was one lone golfer on the links, in dark shorts and shirt and hat, checking out the course that will hold the U.S. Open in two weeks: Tiger Woods his own self. His caddie, Joe LaCava, was beside him.
They were escorted by the man Woods defeated in the final of the 1995 U.S. Amateur, Buddy Marucci, a longtime member at Merion. At the start of the three-hour round, which started right around noon, only Marucci accompanied Woods. Before Woods was done, there might have been a handful of other onlookers. In other words, Woods did his work in private and went to considerable lengths to make sure word of his arrival did not go far.
Woods didn't tour the clubhouse or inspect old trophies or old clubs. He wasn't there as a tourist. He was there as an athlete in training, on his way to Dublin, Ohio, for Jack Nicklaus's tournament.
Nicklaus, as every school child in Philadelphia knows by now, has 20 major titles. Nobody has more. He has six Masters, five PGAs, four U.S. Opens, three British Opens and two U.S. Amateurs. Woods is second on the all-time list, with 17: four Masters, four PGAs, three U.S. Opens, three British Opens and three U.S. Amateurs. Nicklaus lost a U.S. Open at Merion in a playoff to Lee Trevino in 1971. The last time Merion held a U.S. Open, in 1981, Nicklaus finished in a tie for sixth. Nicklaus has played dozens of rounds at Merion. On Tuesday, Woods played his first.
He'll have ample opportunity to ask Nicklaus about his experiences at Merion this week at the Memorial, but it's unlikely he'd go deep with the Golden Bear. As Nicklaus noted at this year's Masters, Woods has seldom asked him questions. Nicklaus, at least in a historical sense, is the most formidable opponent Woods has, and in Woods's view of the world, you are either on his team or not. Besides, he's a visual learner.
In the rain at Merion on Tuesday, Woods was a powerful reminder of why he is, by a mile, the most dominating golfer of his era. First of all, not many of the game's elite players have even been to Merion in recent weeks. Graeme McDowell has played it, as have Adam Scott, Brandt Snedeker and defending champion Webb Simpson. But that's about it. (Sean O'Hair, who lives nearby, has played it, though not in recent weeks.)
Secondly, how many professional golfers are going to slog through 18 holes when the course is sopping wet and the greens are nothing like what they will be come tournament time? Not many. One, actually, might be about it.
LaCava walked the course on Monday night and surely discovered what other players and caddies have found out about Merion, a par-70 that measures just under 7,000 yards: Only two or three holes demand driver off the tee. The rough is absolutely punishing, and there is no real graduated rough. If you miss a fairway, you're in deep, wet lush grass from which there are few options. As for the greens, they are as tricky as greens anywhere, much smaller than Augusta's but with wicked movement, even within six feet of the hole. The greens, the rough and the bunkering are the course's defense.
Come Sunday afternoon of the U.S. Open, if Woods is in contention, he'll be able to say something to himself that nobody else can say: I was here on a lousy, wet Tuesday when nobody else was even thinking about playing. Who deserves to win this thing more than I?
O.K., his thoughts might be more colorful than that. His goal, as always, is to own the field, the course and himself. On Tuesday, he was making headway in all three categories.