PEBBLE BEACH, California – The one shot that got so much attention during practice 10 years ago at Pebble Beach was a 4-iron that Tiger Woods hit so high, so straight, so flush that it landed softly near the pin on a brick-hard green at the par-3 12th.
That wasn’t the case Tuesday at the U.S. Open.
There is not much about Woods that looks the same as it once did.
“Tiger!” he muttered to himself as his 4-iron sailed weakly to the left of the 12th green, closer to the gallery than the pin.
On another chilly and overcast morning on the Monterey Peninsula, Woods hit two drives on the 13th—one left into a bunker, the other in the fairway—for his final shots of the day. His caddie retrieved the balls and followed Woods through an opening in the fence, into a van and back to the driving range. The course was too crowded, the practice round taking too long.
Nothing is comparable, in so many ways, to the last U.S. Open he played at Pebble Beach.
Ten years ago, Woods arrived at Pebble having won 12 times in the previous nine months. This year, he has finished only 13 rounds in the previous seven months. He was the overwhelming favorite in 2000, as he was at just about every tournament. This year, British bookmaker Williams Hill lists him as co-favorite with Masters champion Phil Mickelson at 8-1.
The only thing particularly sharp about Woods was his tongue when a reporter asked about the status of his marriage.
“That’s none of your business,” Woods barked back.
If there is any comfort about this U.S. Open for the world’s No. 1 player, it’s his track record at Pebble Beach. He won the PGA Tour event in February with a five-shot rally in the final round, then sent shock waves through the golfing world with a game that was close to flawless. On a course in which no other player came close to breaking par, Woods finished at 12-under 272 to win by 15 shots.
“That was really a wake-up call for a lot of guys,” said Ernie Els, who played in the final round with Woods that week. “A lot of guys started changing their game. And a lot of guys took their physical fitness to another level. And 10 years later, here we are.”
Mickelson is as great of a threat as ever, with a chance to replace Woods atop the world rankings this week. Els is two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year, as is Jim Furyk. The hottest player might be Lee Westwood, a runner-up at the Masters, no worse than third in his last three majors, and a winner last week in Tennessee.
Even so, the close competition is equally attributed to Woods.
After five months off while coping with the fallout from his extramarital affairs, Woods tied for fourth at the Masters in a remarkable performance. The three tournaments since then have been anything but remarkable. He missed the cut at Quail Hollow. He was in the middle of the pack at The Players Championship when he withdrew from the final round with a neck injury. He was just another player at Muirfield Village two weeks ago when he tied for 19th at the Memorial.
And now comes the U.S. Open, the scene of most dominant performance in major championship history, with nothing but questions about how Woods will perform.
Even he had to catch himself when asked about his play.
“As far as my game, I’m excited where it’s … about how it’s progressed,” Woods said. “It’s gotten better. The more time I’ve been able to practice and play, it’s starting to solidify, and I’m actually really excited to tee it up on Thursday.
“The more I play, the more I get my feel back,” he added. “Where I was in the beginning of June is where a lot of the guys are in January and February – the amount of rounds they competed and played in. So I’m just starting to get my feel back. And I know I have to be patient. It’s coming along.”
Whether anyone can match his 12-under 272 is another question.
Padraig Harrington believes there is not a single record in any sport that will not be broken someday. “Do I think it’s going to be broken this week? No,” he added.
Conditions already are firm and fast, despite two days of overcast skies with the sun breaking through only late in the afternoon. Even high shots with short irons are landing on the small green and bouncing some 5 feet in the air.
Players have reached double digits under par only three times in the U.S. Open, twice at Pebble Beach. Mickelson said both times at Pebble required some rain at some point during the week.
“It’s not supposed to rain this week,” he said. “And that’s why I’m concerned.”
Despite the uncertainty in his game, Woods doesn’t look terribly troubled by facing the toughest test in golf. Nor does he seem concerned that his game is ordinary in a year in which the U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach and the British Open is at St. Andrews, where he has won three of his 14 majors by a combined 28 shots.
Jack Nicklaus set the standard of 18 professional majors, and he has been saying all year that for Woods to make a dent in his record, this would be an important year given the location.
Woods doesn’t buy it.
“I think every year is a big year, any time you have a chance to win four major championships,” Woods said. “Certainly, the venues do set up well and some years they don’t. But it doesn’t mean you can’t win on them.”
A short time later, he was asked to pick his four favorite courses to play majors.
“I’d probably pick St. Andrews all four times,” Woods said with a laugh.
That’s a month away, and it might take Woods at least that long to get his game together.
The U.S. Open starts Thursday.