Golf

Tiger Woods battling self in comeback

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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Steve Williams once told me a story about Tiger Woods.

Woods may have character failings, but a lack of courage isn’t one of them.

In early 2008, Woods was told by his doctors that he couldn’t play after the Masters, not with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and two stress fractures of the left shinbone.

He told them that not only would he play, but he would win the U.S. Open.

That tournament, maybe more than any other, meant everything to Woods.

Not so much because it represented a 14th major, but because his nation’s championship would be played on a course to which he was spiritually attached.

Torrey Pines, the famous municipal track cut into the bluffs atop the Pacific Ocean, had been the Holy Grail for Woods as a boy growing up in Southern California.

His late father, Earl, had promised him that one day, when he was good enough, he’d take his little Tiger to Torrey and they would play together.

The boy dreamed of that day, just as years later the man dreamed of returning to win the U.S. Open on Father’s Day, 2008, for his “Pops,” who‘d passed away two years before.

Golfers are often asked for their fantasy foursome, the three players — alive or deceased — they’d share one last round with if they could. Woods always has the same reply: it wouldn’t be a foursome, but a twosome.

Just him and Pops, they way they used to be.

“We knew after Augusta that he couldn’t go on,” Williams said, recalling Woods’s busted knee. "The doctors told him 100 percent that he couldn’t play but of course I knew he was going to play."

“In all the years I’ve caddied for Tiger, I’ve never heard him talk about one tournament more than the Open at Torrey Pines. From the day they announced that it was going to be the venue, he talked about it all the time. Every time we played (the Tour stop at Torrey Pines), he was always asking, ‘Hey Stevie, What are they going to do with this hole? Where do you think they’ll put the pin here?’ I mean, he never stopped.”

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Robert Lusetich's book, "Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season," is available for purchase here.

Woods’ obsession with the course even grew when he wasn’t playing.

“He was always talking about it, which is intriguing to me because when he had the chance to hold all four major championships at one time, so you had from the end of the PGA in August 2000, till Augusta next April, so you’ve got seven months, he never talked about it. It was never mentioned.

“OK, when we got closer to Augusta he started talking about what kinds of shots he needed but otherwise, he never talked about it. But jeez, he never shut up about Torrey Pines. His absolute resolve to win that tournament to me was just incredible. And (during the tournament) he was hitting it f***ng awful, but he had it in his mind that he was going to win that tournament and nothing was going to stop him.

“I could caddie for the rest of my life and there will never be another tournament like that. That’ll be the biggest highlight for me, ever.”

Pebble Beach is next month. Ten years ago, Woods wrote his legend even larger by winning the U.S. Open there by 15 shots.

Then, in July, the show moves to St. Andrews, which is Woods’ favorite course in the world and the place he’s won two of his three British Opens.

Will he have the same resolve to win these that he had to win that 2008 U.S. Open?

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How much has his life unraveling diluted that will to win? The biggest difference about him at Charlotte and Ponte Vedra Beach was that there was no fire in his belly.

And it’s that fire which has made him Tiger Woods — not just his golf swing.

To me, that manifested itself mostly on the greens. Has there ever been a golfer who has made so many putts, from three to 30 feet, when he’s needed them to fall?

"Tiger won by so many in 2000 not because he hit the ball great — which he did — but because he made every putt he looked at,” Woods’ former coach, Hank Haney, said during one of many media interviews as part of his Farewell, Tiger tour. “You don't win by 15 by hitting the ball great; you win by that many making lots of putts.

“He has not putted as well (under Haney) as he did before. 2000 was nothing more than the greatest putting year in history. He can't repeat that; it was a one-time deal."

Was it?

Though he won’t be playing for the next two weeks as the Tour finishes the Texas swing, these are important weeks for Woods as he prepares to defend his title at The Memorial in Ohio.

He needs to find that Tiger within, because Clark Kent — or whoever that was missing the cut in Charlotte and withdrawing at The Players — isn’t winning at Pebble Beach or St. Andrews.

And he’ll have to find that Tiger himself because there’s no swing coach and Butch Harmon isn‘t reprising his role of a decade ago.

Harmon told Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, two weeks ago that he has no interest in returning as coach.

The swing guru is happily trying to take Phil Mickelson to world No. 1; and what a feat that’d be given he was alongside Greg Norman and Woods when they reached the top of the mountain.

Harmon contacted me Sunday to dispute a story I wrote -- based on conversations with two separate sources -- that he and Woods spoke in January about a possible reunion. Not true, he said.

So, Woods is going it alone.

And maybe that’s the way it needs to be, because no one can help him find what he needs.

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