Woods' invincibility never seemed so far away


UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – For nostalgic types, today is an anniversary worth noting.

Seven years ago today, Tiger Woods beat a guy named Rocco to win his 14th major and third U.S. Open title. Maybe it’s more compelling that Tiger’s one-legged effort at Torrey Pines was also the last time he hoisted Grand Slam glory, as well as the last time the U.S. Golf Association held its national championship on a seaside West Coast municipal layout.

Not that Woods was in a nostalgic mood when he spoke with the media on Tuesday at Chambers Bay.

Through all the trials and few triumphs in recent years, Woods has maintained a singular ideology. On Tuesday, the edges may have changed but the message remained familiar when he was asked what he still had to accomplish in his career.

“More wins,” he said. “That’s why I’m still playing.”

You can question Woods’ methods and medical records, but his motivation has never been up for debate. That, however, seems to be the only similarities between the guy who will tee off on Thursday on the shores of the Puget Sound and the version who needed overtime at the 2008 U.S. Open to sidestep Rocco Mediate along the Pacific Ocean.

Gone is the sense of invincibility that permeated Woods’ halcyon years when even a pronounced limp couldn’t dull his perceived advantage. In its place is a player who hasn’t posted a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour in nearly two years and who seems as fragile as that left knee seven years ago at Torrey Pines.

On Tuesday there was talk of progress and purpose as well as veiled references to significant “base-line shifts” that have been made, leaving only small amounts of tinkering in his journey to a better golf swing.

“You saw what I did at Torrey [withdrawal] and Phoenix [missed cut]. The fact that I came back and did what I did at Augusta [T-17], I was very proud of that,” Woods said. “I'm sure most people have thought I was probably crazy to think I could probably win the Masters. But I really felt like I could. I had a chance, I just didn't get it done.”

First-round tee times: 115th U.S. Open

Missing from that timeline was a third-round 85, his highest 18-hole score on Tour as a professional, and his 302 total, his highest 72-hole total, in his last start at the Memorial.

When Woods hobbled away from Torrey Pines seven years ago today, it was unthinkable - even in his physical state - to consider that the greatest player of his generation would go 0-for-21 in his quest to win major No. 15.

Or that 20 different players would get on the Grand Slam board before Woods, or that he would begin the week at Chambers Bay 195th in the World Golf Ranking.

While Woods talked of a game that is “getting better every day” and a newfound confidence in his swing, the facts do little to support that optimism - particularly when your paradigm of hope is a tie for 17th place in April at Augusta National, and every major statistical category suggests otherwise.

Whether “swing consultant” Chris Como is your brand of vodka really doesn’t matter at this juncture. Woods has made it clear he is all in when it comes to his new action and that he has been through these types of peaks and valleys before.

“Sometimes you have to make a shift, and I did. Short-term suffering for long-term gain,” he explained. “I've done this before when I've made changes in the past I've struggled through it. I've come out on the good side. But I had to make those, it's more of a commitment than anything else. I had to make a commitment, and I have.”

Perhaps, but it’s hard to remember any of those other transitions - from Butch Harmon to Hank Haney and Sean Foley - when the oddsmakers felt better about Sergio Garcia’s chances of winning his first major (33 to 1) than they do about Tiger winning his 15th (50 to 1).

It’s a reality that Woods has, if not embraced, then at least made peace with.

“This year certainly has been a struggle,” he said.

An entire generation of players now considers that 2008 Open Woods’ seminal moment. On Tuesday, Cole Hammer, the 15-year-old high school sophomore who will be the third-youngest player to participate in the U.S. Open, was asked his earliest golf memories and his young mind quickly raced back to that Torrey Pines highlight reel.

“When he did that fist pump on the 18th green [72nd hole]. I've been watching the U.S. Open since then,” Hammer said, as if he were talking about a chapter from a dusty history book.

Never before has Torrey Pines and that ’08 masterpiece seemed so far away, not in months or metaphorical meaning.