Tiger Talk at the US Open

By Mercer BaggsJune 13, 2006, 4:00 pm
U.S. OpenMAMARONECK, N.Y. -- He smiled at the words. The question evoked a response to a seminal time in his life.
I beat Dad when I was 11. I shot 71 to his 72 at the Navy Golf Course, Tiger Woods said, recalling the first time he ever beat his late father Earl in golf.
Then, without prompting, he described how he did so.
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods practices his putting Tuesday at Winged Foot.
I birdied 16 and 18, made about a 15-footer (at the last), a little right-to-left. I gave it the fist pump walking off the green and everything. It went in, and we celebrated.
Woods has spent more than a month remembering the wonderful times he had with his father. Mostly, hes done so in private: on the range, on his home course, with his family and friends.
Tuesday, he did so in a public forum, addressing the media for the first time since his father succumbed to cancer on May 3.
More than 100 people crowded the interview room. Cameras clicked at rapid-fire pace before he could even utter a word. Woods normally commands a larger audience than everyone else, but capacity reached a maximum this time because it's the first time he has played an event since the Masters Tournament.
Its been nine weeks since he last competed against his peers, his longest layoff since turning professional. During that time off, he left the clubs alone for more than a month, feeling no urge to use the tools that have made him so famous.
Instead, he spent most of his time thinking about the man who helped make him who he really is ' not the player, but the person.
I really had no desire to get back to the game of golf, he said. I think one of the hardest things for me, in all honesty, was to get back to the game of golf, because a lot of my memories, great memories that I have with my dad are at the golf course.
Following the Masters and prior to his father's passing, he went to New Zealand to be the Best Man at caddie Steve Williams wedding. During that trip, he went bungee jumping and raced cars.
Pops approved.
I asked Dad, Hey, Pop, do you think I should go? He said, Im not going anywhere. Get your ass out of here. Go be with Stevie. Thats where you need to be, he recalled.
In the wake of his fathers death, Woods skipped the Byron Nelson Championship, the Wachovia Championship and the Memorial Tournament, all events he normally plays. He just wasnt ready to return.
I didnt feel that I could be as focused as I could be to win the championship, he said. If youre not 100 percent on winning a championship, theres really no need to go play. So I didnt. I didnt want to come back until I felt I was ready to win a championship.
And even though Pops wasnt there tell him it was OK, he still knew that he would have approved.
Dad was always adamant of whenever youre ready to play, play. If youre not ready, dont play, Tiger said. If youre not mentally ready to play, youre not going to be there.
Now, hes back. Mentally, he feels ready; physically, as well.
Ive had plenty of time to get ready; I just didnt feel that I was ready to deal with all this and also try and prepare for the Open. Id much rather kind of deal with it all at once and get it over with and not have to worry about, What are you going to do for the Open? Well, Im already here, so its kind of sweet, said Woods, who tied for 29th in the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot.
Im very excited the way Ive played at home and even more excited the way Ive played here, he added. Im looking forward to Thursday.
Woods said that it didnt take very long to find his form. There were certainly a couple of rough patches, but he managed to smooth them out in expedient fashion.
Its funny, because every time you come back from a layoff, you always hit it great the first day. You never miss a shot the first day back. The second day, its some idiot with a club. You hit it all over the planet, he explained. But its always the third day ' how are you doing on the third day? I actually hit it pretty good the third day, and then it got progressively better. It was nice to see that, for my game to come back that quick.
Woods has before taken off in the neighborhood of two months. Hes even won upon return. But on those previous occasions, he returned to familiar surroundings, like at Torrey Pines for the Buick Invitational or at Disney, both events that hes won on multiple occasions.
This will be different, far different. This time, he faces the West Course at Winged Foot ' a menacing, formidable U.S. Open set-up.
He got a chance to test out the layout a few weeks ago, and has played here each of the last two days. Accuracy, as always on an Open course, will be important. But he knows that good putting will be paramount, that the tournament will likely be won or lost on the greens.
The last time we saw Woods, he was missing putt after crucial putt at Augusta National. He said that he and his putter are now friends again, and that after doing some slight alterations to his flat stick in anger that everything is back in line and in order.
I had a bad day at the wrong time, Woods said of his final round at the Masters, where he ultimately tied for third. The entire day, on the putting green warming up, I did not have my speed. I did all my little drills to try and get my speed back ' I just didnt have it.
Ive done quite a bit of practicing with my putting and my speed and my line and working on my fundamentals again, just making sure you rolls the ball at the correct pace here, because bad pace here and youre going to be punished because of the slopes of these greens.
On the surface, Woods appears confident and comfortable, ready and prepared to make a run at his third career U.S. Open title.
Whats below the surface, however, only Tiger knows.
Sunday, of course, is Fathers Day. When asked how much it would mean to him to celebrate victory on that day and under these circumstances, Woods politely skirted the question.
Sunday is hopefully a day where I can win the championship, he said. It is what it is.
Players never like to look too far ahead, never thinking about Sunday evening when Thursday morning isnt yet here. And Woods, while in competition, is certainly trying to disconnect himself from any emotion that might hinder him from earning his 11th major championship win.
Hes already received an overwhelming amount of emotional support from family, friends and fans. He got a call from Jack Nicklaus, who also lost his father at the age of 30 ' one that was much appreciated and a conversation that will forever remain between the two legends.
He knows the New York crowd will be vocal in their support, as well, this week.
A lot of times, at a low period, its nice to have the fans out there supporting you and wishing you the best, he said.
This will be an unusual and unique major for Tiger Woods, his first such championship ' his first tournament of any kind ' without his father. And while hes trying not to think about it, hes hoping to make this Fathers Day as special, if not more so, as those in the past.
Fathers Day was actually a pretty cool day, because I would always try and beat my dad on the golf course and then come back home and catch the back nine of the U.S. Open, he recalled.
It was always a great day when I beat my dad, and then wed go home and watch the U.S. Open.
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