DUBLIN, Ohio – Tiger Woods is the defending champion at Memorial and a four-time winner at Muirfield Village.
It just doesn’t seem that way.
He arrived at the course that Jack Nicklaus built – the one that Woods at times seems to own – with his game as unpredictable at ever. Woods is coming off a neck injury that he said now feels good enough to practice and play. He no longer has a swing coach, having split with Hank Haney three weeks ago, and has no plans to find another one anytime soon.
Since returning to golf in April, he has completed only one tournament, a tie for fourth in The Masters. That takes on even greater significance with the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach only two weeks away.
“Maybe this time I’ll get four rounds in and get ready for the Open,” Woods said Wednesday.
He remains as capable as ever, and Woods wasted no time showing that in the Memorial Skins Game. Playing in the second group of five players, he hit a towering shot out of the right rough behind a tree on the 10th hole to about 18 feet and rolled in the quick putt for a birdie to win a skin. Next up came the par-5 11th, where he followed a pure tee shot with a 4-iron to just outside 4 feet for eagle.
Easy game, right?
Everything else has been a struggle, starting with the upheaval in his personal life, seeping into his game.
When last seen in public, Woods leaned his head against the locker at the TPC Sawgrass, eyes closed and looking lost, after withdrawing from the final round of The Players Championship with what he feared was a bulging disc. Turns out it was inflammation of a joint in his neck, which he treated with massage, anti-inflammatory medicine and rest.
“My neck feels pretty good,” he said. “Still not where I want it to be, but the inflammation has calmed down. I’ve got a range of motion again. It’s a little bit sore after a good, hard day of practice. But I can recover for the next day, which is good.”
As for the coach? Woods doesn’t feel as though he needs one.
Even when he left Butch Harmon sometime in 2003, he had been friends with Haney through Mark O’Meara, and they often discussed swing thoughts and strategy even before they began working together.
Now, Woods’ coach is a video monitor.
“That’s the great thing about technology,” Woods said.
He’ll find out what kind of swing he brings to the course on Thursday when the Memorial gets under way with some compelling story lines, not all of them involving Woods.
Phil Mickelson, for the third straight tournament, has a chance to replace Woods at No. 1 in the world ranking. He was in position at The Players Championship with Woods out of the way, but went the wrong direction in the final round. At the Colonial last week, Mickelson missed the cut. Perhaps his time is coming. He won all nine skins in his group, which featured Nicklaus, during the Wednesday game.
“It would be cool,” Mickelson said about the ranking. “I don’t want to discount it. Right now, my goal is to play well here and get ready for the Open next week.”
Mickelson mentioned to the tournament host how badly he wants to win his tournament. Nicklaus couldn’t agree more, spinning a famous phrase from Bobby Jones who once said a golfer’s resume is not complete until he wins at St. Andrews.
“I told him, ‘A golfer’s resume is not complete until he wins at Muirfield,”’ Nicklaus said with a laugh.
More than the ranking, Woods and Mickelson are more interested in having their game right for Pebble Beach.
Mickelson has been up and down throughout the year – his Masters victory and runner-up at Quail Hollow were the only two times he has been in serious contention – but at least he knows what to expect having had far more repetitions.
Woods has played only nine full rounds since Nov. 15, the day he won the Australian Masters. That doesn’t include the 54 holes he played the other day, in carts and in shorts.
“It would be nice to get four rounds in and be in contention and hopefully win this thing,” Woods said. “That’s kind of where I’d like to be. I’d like to see where my game is going into the Open, and I should get a full tournament in, which I haven’t had since the Masters.”
Nicklaus was told that oddsmakers still list Woods as the favorite at the U.S. Open.
He was not surprised. Neither was he convinced.
“Six to one?” Nicklaus said, repeating the odds. “That will drop very quickly.”
Then he paused with some uncertainty.
“A lot will depend on what he does this week,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t know how is health is. I don’t know how he’s playing. I think a lot will depend on his preparation, and I think that’s why he’s here. He struggled at Augusta, even though he played pretty well. He struggled from not having played.
“This is a big week for him.”