Returning Tiger certain to be in hunt

THE sceptics contend that he will be rusty and out of his competitive zone having been out of action since early April after knee surgery.

Combine those negatives with the length of the Torrey Pines South course, all 7,646 yards of it, and typically tigerish US Open rough and they maintain that Tiger Woods will have to wait a little longer to capture his third US Open and 14th major in all.

It remains to be seen whether he can cope with the way the course has been set up, especially off the tee, whether he will “quarantine the driver”. That’s normally a sound strategy for a peerless long iron player who thrives on rock-hard courses where the ball goes forever and he can play a mix of stinger three woods and long irons off the tee. But Torrey is never ending. The average mid-June temperature is in the upper 60s, a layer of fog known as “the June Gloom” adds moisture, the USGA aren’t averse to watering the fairways. So he’ll need the big dog.

The inference, of course, is that Woods can’t control that particular club and that is the real reason why he has won “only” two US Opens, his most recent at Bethpage in 2002 having run away from the field at Pebble Beach two years earlier.

However, having walked several holes with him and taken time out over the past couple of days to check on his health and general well being, I can’t help thinking that his odds of around 7/4 favourite may not be as ridiculously short as may initially appear to be the case.

First things first. There is absolutely no indication that he is suffering any after effects of his operation. He has strode around the Torrey course as upright and straight as ever and has not been averse to extricating his ball from the wiry, six-inch deep rough. He has chatted and joked with his playing partners — yesterday they were the big hitting left-hander Bubba Watson and Jordan Cox, a young amateur from Redwood, California, who was the last of seven qualifiers at Daly City with rounds of 70 and 72.

Woods likes to play practice rounds with young hopefuls and it’s a nice sign of the guy. Beyond that, though, he doesn’t give much away. He turned up at Torrey out of the blue on Wednesday last for a first look at a course he usually knows like the back of his hand having won six Buick Invitationals here. But those tournaments are played in February on courses set up by the PGA Tour. When the USGA got their hands on the place, however, it quickly began to look a different kind of beast altogether.

He played nicely and gently for 17 holes but after driving off the 18th tee, noticed a group of people circulating around the green. So he simply drifted away without stating a public word one way or the other. He was just as reticent over the past couple of days and we won’t know for sure how his mind is working until he arrives in the media centre for his usual pre-championship press conference this morning.

However, no matter how different the course may be, Woods still has a massive advantage in the area of local knowledge. He’s been playing here since he was 15 when he beat Chris Riley (a Ryder Cup partner at Oakland Hills in 2004) by three shots in the final of the Junior World Championship 15-17 age section. He shot rounds of 74, 70, 73 and 69.

In 1999, Tiger survived the cut by only two shots in the Buick but stormed through the weekend in 62 and 65 to beat Billy Ray Brown by two. Another knee operation threatened his career in 2003 but three months after surgery he settled a score with his old rival Phil Mickelson, a native of San Diego.

He hadn’t been playing Nike clubs and balls for very long when “Lefty” publicly aired the view that he felt Woods wasn’t using the best equipment. They were paired together in the tournament and it never was a contest. A Tiger scorned...

He went on to win by four from Brad Faxon who stated that he had “put on a clinic” during his rounds with Mickelson.

Still not convinced? Then listen to an oft-expressed comment by Woods concerning Torrey Pines: “I play well here — the course fits my eye.”


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