SportsPulse: Tiger Woods’ last win at a major was 10 years ago, but USA TODAY Sports’ Steve DiMeglio thinks Tiger can end that decade-long drought at the U.S. Open in Shinnecock Hills.
USA TODAY Sports
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — There have been shots this year — soaring drives, precise irons, exquisite chips — and stretches of Tiger Woods-like golf that made you believe the greatest player of his generation truly was back, that winning again seemed to be just a matter of time, if not imminent.
So far, though, those stretches haven’t been brilliant enough, or long enough, for Woods to add to his total of 79 career victories. He has struggled to put his entire game together over four rounds and has been hampered most recently by a run of substandard putting.
The reality is he’s 42, with a body (if not a putting stroke) that might be approaching its major championship expiration date. He hasn’t won a major in 10 years and hasn’t won a PGA Tour event in nearly five.
Looking at it through that prism, it’s asking a lot for him to battle Shinnecock Hills and a field of 156 of the best golfers in the world and emerge triumphant Sunday in the 118th U.S. Open.
But is it asking too much?
It depends how you evaluate where he is in his latest comeback.
First, some perspective. Woods is 14 months removed from his fourth back surgery, an anterior lumbar interbody fusion, which is a fancy way of saying some messed-up discs were repaired. A year ago, as he watched Brooks Koepka win the U.S. Open on television, he hadn’t yet been cleared to chip and putt; it wasn’t until October that he was able to resume golf activities without restriction.
That he can swing a driver 125 mph again is something of a minor miracle. His comeback just as easily could have gone the other way, in which case his yacht would be docked somewhere in Florida or the Bahamas instead of Sag Harbor and he would be designing courses fulltime instead of playing them.
“It was about just having my standard of life. Forget golf,” Woods said Tuesday. “Can I actually participate in my kids’ lives again? That’s something I had missed for a few years and that was the main goal.
“So to go from there to where I’m at now, I had no expectation of getting this far. 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 the best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one I don’t take for granted.”
Woods has made nine starts this year and has teased with some close calls. Upon close examination, though, he really had a chance to win just once, when he tied for second at the Valspar Championship in March, one shot behind Paul Casey.
He tied for fifth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but even though he shot 69-69 on the weekend he was lapped by Rory McIlroy’s 67-64. He shot a final-round 69 at the Masters, another encouraging sign, but started the day 18 shots off the pace. He tied for 11th at the Players Championship with a 65-69 finish, but never threatened the lead.
At the Memorial in his most recent start, his ball-striking was vintage Woods but he putted like a blacksmith, missing seven putts inside 5 feet and settling for a tie for 23rd.
Asked if it he was frustrated at not being able to put the pieces together, Woods said, “I mean, golf is always frustrating. There’s always something that isn’t quite right and that’s where we, as players, have to make adjustments. You’ve seen the tournaments I’ve played in this year. There’s always something.”
A glance at the stats reveals some interesting contradictions. Woods is a combined 20-under par in his last eight rounds, on tough courses — TPC Sawgrass and Muirfield Village — but his third-round 65 at the Players is his only score lower than 67 in 38 rounds this year. In 2013, he shot 66 or better eight times in 60 rounds.
He ranks 16th in scoring average (70.035) despite ranking 182nd in driving accuracy and 174th in percentage of putts made inside 5 feet.
“Hopefully, this is one of those weeks where I put it all together and even it out,” Woods said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Steve Stricker, one of Woods’ closest friends on tour, has played dozens of rounds with Woods over the years and the two played a practice round together Monday. Stricker judged Woods’ game to be about where it was a decade ago.
“It’s not much different,” Stricker said. “He’s got his short game back. I know he hasn’t putted well the last tournament or two, but I think he’s onto a few things there. He’s striking it as good as I’ve seen him. His swing looks as good as I’ve seen it. I think he’s in good shape and his attitude is great. Yeah, he can compete here.”
When Woods tees it up Thursday, it will mark his first U.S. Open round in three years. He’s played in just 33 official PGA Tour events since his most recent victory on Aug. 4, 2013 (WGC-Bridgestone Invitational).
There are still plenty of questions surrounding Woods and it’s not likely he’ll answer all of them at Shinnecock Hills. The only thing we know for certain is that his standard remains unchanged.
He wants to win.
And he hasn’t done it in a long time.