ARDMORE, Pa. – With the U.S. Open making its return to Merion Golf Club after a 32-year absence – hold the “triumphant” adjective until the rain stops coming down – there have been many stories written reliving the tale of Ben Hogan’s famous 1-iron from the 1950 edition of this event, captured timelessly by photographer Hy Peskin in one of the game’s most famous shots.
This isn’t one of them.
That doesn’t mean the photograph isn’t relevant in the telling of this story, about another legend of the game seeking to reclaim his own major championship mojo at Merion.
Tiger Woods was asked about the iconic photo on Tuesday, and his answer provided a brief glimpse into the mind of a man who cares solely about winning and regards anything else as bitter disappointment.
As a historian of the game – not only his own, but tournaments and players and courses that came well before his time – Woods knows the history behind Hogan’s 1-iron shot. He knows Hogan was involved in a life-threatening car accident one year earlier, knows he needed par just to get into a playoff, knows he hit the 1-iron to some 40 feet and two-putted for that par, knows he won the playoff one day later.
And so when asked about the photograph that hangs in so many 19th holes around the world, Woods said, “It's a great photo, but it would have been an alright photo if he didn't win. He still had to go out and win it the next day.”
There you have it. Consider that comment Tiger’s equivalent to Vince Lombardi’s “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” missive, even if the football coach later contended that he was misquoted.
On the eve of Woods’ five-year anniversary of his last major championship victory, it should also allow a window into his mindset – and exactly how not winning another one for so long has affected him.
Though he’d never reveal it publicly, he is no longer only chasing Jack Nicklaus’ all-time major record. He is now chasing his former self, the player who won 14 of the first 46 major starts he made as a professional, the player whose odometer has been stuck on that number for five years this week.
It must gnaw at him, eating away at his thoughts while he works harder and longer and prepares more for the one thing he most wants. After all, winning on the PGA Tour is nice, but as Woods has always informed us, majors are where the legends measure themselves.
And as we know, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
“I just enter events to win, and that's it, whether there's a lot of people following or there's nobody out there,” he explained. “It's still the same. It's still about winning the event. That's why I played as a junior, all the way through to now is just to try to kick everyone's butt. That, to me, is the rush. That's the fun. That's the thrill.
“It's been nice to be a part of the mix for 17 years now out here and be a part of a lot of great duels and a lot of great battles. And that to me is why I prepare, why I lift all those weights and put myself through all that is to be in those types of positions. It's fun.”
Even though Woods hasn’t claimed a major title since 2008, he claims that it hasn’t gotten more difficult over time, that the losses haven’t piled up in his mind and that they haven’t created more internal pressure.
He was asked about this on Tuesday, whether it was any easier back when he was going 14 for his first 46, when he was winning majors on a regular basis.
“No,” he says with a crooked, knowing smile. “It wasn't ever easy.”
When pressed as to whether he owned an edge over the competition back when major wins were common for him, Woods still didn’t acquiesce. “A lot of majors that I won were on either the first or second time I'd ever seen it. It was never easy. The practice rounds are imperative. Doing scouting trips are very important, just like it is for this week. I came up here early. And getting a little feel for this golf course. I had to do all that stuff. But then I have to go out and execute and go out and win an event.”
He still remembers. Still knows exactly what it takes to win a major. It’s been five years, but really, five years isn’t that long.
If Woods needs any further motivation coming up the 18th fairway here at Merion on Sunday afternoon – and trust me, he doesn’t – he can look down to the plaque commemorating Hogan’s famous 1-iron, confident in his analysis that without culmination in victory, it would have just been “alright.” And he understands that if he wants to join Hogan in this course’s history, he too will have to win.
“We've got a long way to go,” he said. “We're two days away from the start. I would like to obviously put my name there at the end of the week, but I've got to do my work and put myself there.”
He’s done his work. Nobody has ever questioned that. Now he just has to put himself there again.