Woods Seeking First Major in Two Years

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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- Tiger Woods came to the U.S. Open fully ready to deal with the swirling winds, waist-high grass and quirky bounces at Shinnecock Hills.
 
He wasn't quite as eager to address another matter that got almost as much attention Tuesday -- the growing concern about the state of his game.
 
'Am I tired of it? Yeah,' Woods said.
 
He followed his words with a smile, but it's clear Woods has had enough of the same questions over and over.
 
They've come after every wayward tee shot, every back-nine disaster, and every tournament Woods has failed to win.
 
They came again after a practice round at treacherous Shinnecock Hills, where Woods won't be contending if he keeps hitting the ball sideways off the tee as he has in recent months.
 
'Certainly I try and just kind of take it in, but the problem is you guys keep asking me about it,' Woods said. 'Every tournament I go to you keep asking the same questions.'
 
The questions come because the player who used to dominate the majors doesn't seem to be the same player anymore. Woods hasn't won a major in two years, and you can't tune in to a tournament anymore without seeing him slashing it out from under a tree.
 
You also can't stop hearing commentators analyze his swing, and question why he refuses to seek help from former instructor Butch Harmon. At the Memorial, Woods' caddie put his golf bag in front of a camera so his swing couldn't be picked apart.
 
'We laugh on tour about how these guys think they know everything, but they don't,' Woods said.
 
Woods' biggest problem, though, may be the fact that it might be tough to be Tiger Woods, but it's even tougher to follow him.
 
When he last teed it up in a U.S. Open on Long Island, it was almost a given that Woods would win. The fans expected it, and so did most of the other players.
 
Two years later, things have changed.
 
Since winning about 50 miles from here at Bethpage in 2002 -- his seventh win in his last 11 majors-- Woods has gone seven major championships without a win. He hasn't won a stroke play title since October, and he's blown two 36-hole leads already this year.
 
Worse yet, he's in danger of losing the No. 1 ranking he has held since the 1999 PGA Championship. That could happen this week if Ernie Els wins the Open and Woods finishes worse than sixth.
 
'I know that I haven't played up to my absolute peak, but who does week in and week out?' Woods asked. 'It certainly is not from a lack of effort, and I know that I'm going to be making some great progress this year.'
 
Just what is wrong with Woods is easy to see, and just as difficult to pinpoint. His short game remains immaculate, and his irons are almost always the right distance.
 
Get him on a tee, though, and watch out.
 
Woods is 147th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy this year, hitting barely more than half the fairways he aims at. At crucial times, like when he resorted to a safe slice off the tee in the Wachovia Championship to try to keep the ball somewhere in play while blowing a second-round lead, it seems even worse.
 
And it's not just the driver.
 
In his last tournament, Woods was trying to make a late comeback in the Memorial when he hit a 4-iron off the tee into the water. He has even struggled at times with the 2-iron stinger he likes to use off the tee to stay in play.
 
If it weren't for great putting, Woods wouldn't even be in the mix. Because of the putter, he has one win and seven top-10 finishes in 10 tournaments this year, numbers that anyone who isn't named Tiger Woods would take in an instant.
 
Even the hottest putter, though, won't win at Shinnecock if the tee shots bury in the deep grass that resembles fields of grain blowing in the coastal wind.
 
Woods says winning his ninth major championship will also involve some luck, the kind he got at St. Andrews in 2000 when he didn't hit a ball into a bunker for four rounds, although two bounced right over deep bunkers.
 
His rivals believe that sometimes Woods manufactures his own luck. He may not dominate anymore, but they're not counting him out at Shinnecock.
 
'I'd hate to rule out him coming back and playing at that level again because I think that's most likely going to happen,' Phil Mickelson said. 'I think we all expect him to come out and light it up like he usually does, and I think it's very, very soon going to happen. I just hope we can put it off as long as possible.'
 
Until then, Woods is trying to put things in perspective. He's won $51.5 million in eight years as a pro, made many times more than in endorsements and still wants desperately to compete just as he did in the past.
 
He laughed when someone suggested he might be the biggest celebrity in the Hamptons this week.
 
'I'm just a golfer, man,' he said. 'I chase a little white ball around and work on my farmer tan, that's it.'
 
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