The toughest test in golf once seemed so easy to figure out.
The U.S. Open will be held at Torrey Pines, a public course that has become Tiger Woods’ private domain. He won the Junior World Championship there as a teenager, and his record at the Buick Invitational on the PGA Tour is astounding. He has won six times, including the last four in a row, and has never finished out of the top 10 or more than four shots behind.
Woods shot a 67 on the South Course in his first round of the 2008 season, and a caddie standing behind the 18th green said, “He just won two tournaments with one round.” Woods wound up at 19-under par and won by eight shots to set a tournament record.
“What he’s going to do is screw the U.S. Open up for everyone else,” Fred Couples said that day.
But that was before Woods had surgery on his left knee two days after the Masters, his second such surgery in five years. And that was before the world’s No. 1 player sat out two months, leaving him without a competitive round until he tees it up Thursday on a Torrey Pines course set up for the U.S. Open, long known as golf’s toughest test. (He played his first complete practice round this week.)
Now who’s the favorite?
“That’s a great question,” Couples said. “In March, it was an easy one to answer.”
So much has changed since Woods showed up at Torrey Pines in January to start his season. He said the Grand Slam was “easily within reason,” and there was even talk of a perfect season.
It has become anything but that.
Two days after a runner-up finish at the Masters – so much for the Grand Slam – Woods had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee that cleaned out cartilage, among other things. Only those in his inner circle saw it coming. He said it had been bothering him since last year, and Woods used the offseason to strengthen his leg with hopes of avoiding surgery.
The recovery was supposed to be six weeks, in time for a trial run at the Memorial. But he said he wasn’t ready, and there was a slight limp during his press conference that week to promote his AT&T National tournament.
“It’s not like I haven’t been down this road before,” Woods said, alluding to his ’03 victory in the Buick Invitational after missing two months with knee surgery. “I know what it takes to win a tournament after having a procedure done, and it’s just a matter of being prepared, getting all my practice time in, making sure my shots are how I want them, trying to understand what my misses might be.
“But you don’t really know until you get under tournament heat what your misses are going to be.”
No one really knows anything.
Swing coach Hank Haney went to Florida when Woods started hitting balls a week before the Memorial. Woods said some practice sessions were long, others he cut short. With a week to go before the U.S. Open, he had not played an 18-hole round.
“He’s progressing,” Haney said. “But there’s no way to predict progression. When I was there, he hit as good as I’ve ever seen him hit it. It’s the stamina for the walking. He was hitting it great, drivers, everything. No problem at all. It’s more of a walking issue.”
It helps that the U.S. Open is held at Torrey Pines, a course he has been playing since a kid and knows his way around. It is different from Winged Foot, where Woods missed the cut in the 2006 U.S. Open – the only time he has done that in a major – after missing nine weeks to cope with his father’s death.
What might not help is that it’s the U.S. Open, the major Woods has won the fewest times (twice).
Torrey Pines will be nothing in June like it was in January, with warmer air, faster fairways and rough that is a blend of kikuya, rye and poa annua grasses – the kind that grabs the club on impact.
“It will be interesting to see how the golf course is, the speed of it,” Woods said. “You know the greens are going to be hard and fast. We have played them hard, but not really this fast.”
Adding to the odds against him is Phil Mickelson, the No. 2 player in the world and Woods’ biggest rival. Mickelson grew up in San Diego, won the Buick Invitational three times and feels at home at Torrey Pines. He also is coming off a victory in the Colonial, making him the only player besides Woods to win multiple times on the PGA Tour.
“I know he’s preparing as hard as he can physically that will allow him to be ready for the U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “And his 80 percent is still pretty darn good. So I’ve got to be ready.”
Pat Perez was among several players who still believe Woods is the one to beat. Perez, who qualified for the U.S. Open, grew up on Torrey Pines and worked in the cart barn as a teenager. Perez won the Junior World Championship in Woods’ final year of eligibility, finishing eight shots ahead of him.
“He’s done a little better than I have,” Perez said.
But when he was asked about Woods being vulnerable after knee surgery, Perez shook his head.
“Doesn’t matter. He could play with no legs,” Perez said. “He can do whatever he wants. I’m tired of people saying he’s got no chance. He proves people wrong every single time. I expect great things to happen. Once he tees of Thursday, there’s no slowing him.”
One reason Woods began working with Haney in 2004 was to retool his swing to alleviate the enormous pressure on his left knee. He figured out the changes late in 2004, and has won five majors over the last three years.
He also missed the cut at Winged Foot, which Woods says now was more a product of not having his head in the game. This is different. Woods is eager to return to competition, and said even if it weren’t the U.S. Open, he would still be playing.
Even so, no one is sure what to expect.
A U.S. Open that once looked to be so predictable now has only question marks.
Tiger or Phil?
“If Tiger is healthy, I still put him ahead of Phil,” Couples said. “If his knee is wiggling, it’s going to be hard. Even if he takes this week off (Memorial), it’s not going to hurt him. He’s still the guy to beat.”