Tiger Woods has only played one U.S. Open since 2013, and that was a putrid missed cut in 2015 when he beat just one of the 16 amateurs in the field. Woods, who has four top-12 finishes on the 2017-18 PGA Tour season, said that after two straight years of missing out, he’s fired up to be back.
“I’ve missed playing the U.S. Open,” Woods said on Tuesday. “It’s our nation’s title. It’s meant so much to me and my career and, obviously, the USGA, what it has done for golf. This was, you know, the biggest event you could win growing up; win a USGA event. To have won it nine times is pretty special. So I’m looking forward to playing this week. I’ve really missed playing U.S. Opens, and this will be another fun test.”
This sentiment, which runs up against how people feel about Augusta National and the Masters, is actually somewhat shared by Jack Nicklaus, who won the tournament four times (to Tiger’s three).
In 2016, Jack Nicklaus ranked the four majors for @GolfDigest’s @guy_yocom1. No. 4 might surprise you: pic.twitter.com/tpLpunTkeU
— Mike O’Malley (@GD_MikeO) June 12, 2018
Woods has competed for the U.S. Open trophy twice at this course — once as an amateur in 1995 (he had to WD with an injury) and once in 2004 when he finished at 10 over and T17. He said on Tuesday that those Shinnecocks do not resemble this one after its 2012 makeover from Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
That might be a good thing for Woods, especially the removal of rough around the greens. Big Cat is No. 22 on the PGA Tour so far this year in scrambling and No. 6 (!) in strokes gained from tee to green. Wider fairways should allow him to be wild off the tee (which he still is at times), and a course that engenders more creativity always tips the scales toward Tiger.
“When I played here in ’95 and ’04, you know, we had that six-inch, four to six-inch high rough right off the greens,” said Woods. “It was a very different type of setup. This is very different. Balls run off much further around these greens.
“I think that’s what Bill [Coore] and Ben [Crenshaw] try and do in all their golf courses. They try and provide more of a natural setting and also give the players so many different options to choose from. It doesn’t just have to be a high towering shot. We can utilize the ground and have that be an ally.”
Maybe nobody in history has been better over the course of his career at using the ground as an ally than Woods. He has dominated at classic links-style courses like St. Andrews like few ever have (or will). So it’s likely to his advantage that Shinnecock has been pushed back in that direction. From a math equation to a riddle, as Andy Johnson of the Fried Egg put it.
There’s nobody better at solving golf riddles than Tiger Woods.
So the question for me remains: Can he putt it this week? He’s been pretty terrible of late and currently ranks No. 89 on Tour in strokes gained putting, which is OK but not up to Woods’ standards. The issues this year for Woods have been two-fold with the flat stick, as the good folks over at Data Golf have pointed out.
He’s been below his average — as well as the Tour average — on really long putts and really short ones. Both of those numbers have just fallen off a cliff in recent weeks.
“I worked on it pretty hard this past week,” said Woods of his putting. “Just had to hit a lot of putts, just put in the legwork, and I was able to do that. My stroke feels good, and we’re back on old bumpy poa. So hopefully hit good solid putts and see what happens.
“I mean, golf is always frustrating,” he added. “There’s always something that isn’t quite right, and that’s where we, as players, have to make adjustments. And, you know, you’ve seen the tournaments I’ve played in this year. There’s always something. Hopefully, this is one of those weeks where I put it all together and even it out, and we’ll see what happens.”
I question whether someone, even someone as good as Tiger has been, can go from not winning in five years to winning the toughest tournament on a course that has an endless supply of questions in one of the best fields of the last few decades (and maybe ever). Tiger, though? He’s just happy to be here.
“So to go from there to where I’m at now, I had no expectation of getting this far,” he said on Tuesday. “A lot of this is pure bonus because of where I was. To be able to have this opportunity to play USGA events, to play against these guys, best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one that I don’t take for granted.”
Well, he’s just happy to be here … until that first shot on Thursday.