Time is a major ally for Tiger
As far as anniversaries go, this one won’t have Tiger Woods filling champagne flutes in celebration.
It’s far too somber an occasion, the fourth anniversary of his 14th — and most recent — major; too painful a reminder of all that’s gone so wrong for Woods since that legendary triumph on one leg at the 2008 US Open.
He was 32 then and literally had it all — which turned out to be too much.
But back then, despite impending knee surgery, Woods soared so high above the competition that few doubted he’d eclipse the most important record in golf, Jack Nicklaus’ haul of 18 majors.
Since then, injuries have bookended a scandal, a messy — and expensive — divorce and yet another overhaul of his golf swing, and these days, Woods is far from a sure thing to catch the Golden Bear.
That said, Woods has won twice this season, his first two full-field victories since his life was imploded by a fire hydrant in Thanksgiving 2009.
The most recent might also have been the most revealing; Woods tied another Nicklaus benchmark — 73 PGA Tour wins, good for second all time — in winning Jack’s own tournament, the Memorial, two weeks ago.
Yet, despite the old-school, jaw-dropping chip-in that triggered Tiger’s come-from-behind victory at Muirfield Village, question marks still linger.
Is he really back, or is this yet another false start?
"He’s won two times this year. Nobody else has won more than that," said Curtis Strange, a two-time US Open champion. "So it’s been unfair, because when he wins, we critique how he wins. It’s not just that he wins anymore.
"But I think down deep inside me to say he’s back to a level of competing every week? Yeah, I think he would have to win a major first."
On a brilliantly sunny Tuesday morning at the Olympic Club, outside of San Francisco, such logic did not need to be explained to Woods.
He’s always lived with the burden of lofty expectation.
"I think even if I do win a major championship, it will still be, ‘You’re not to 18 yet,’ or ‘When will you get to 19?’ ” Woods said. "It’s always something with you guys.
"I’ve dealt with that my entire career, ever since I was an amateur and playing all the way through to professional golf. Iit hasn’t changed."
There was, be sure, a certain bitterness woven through those sentiments, but it’s equally true that it fuels Woods to believe the world’s against him.
Except, of course, the world’s hardly against him, especially the bookmaking world, which has installed him as the favorite to win this 112th United States Open.
Although he’s been favored before — most recently at the Masters — Woods might have had the confidence (or at least pretended he did). But since the scandal, he hasn’t brought the game.
And that, in a nutshell, was his riposte to those who’d point to his career-worst finish at the Masters and ask how that could’ve happened given he was coming off an impressive victory at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational?
"When I went into Augusta, I did not feel comfortable hitting the ball up (in the air). And I got back into a lot of my old (swing) patterns. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out," he said.
"But that’s what made playing Muirfield so nice is that I had those shots and I was doing it the correct way.
"And I had compression, hitting the ball high and hitting it long. That was fun."
He will need to hit it high and long and, more critically, straight if he’s to win at Olympic Club, where in 1998 he finished tied for 18th, 10 shots behind winner Lee Janzen.
"This is just the most demanding test that there is in golf," he said.
The first six holes are so brutal that Woods guessed that if he played them at just even par for four days he’d "pick up just a boatload of shots" on the field.
Although Woods played Olympic Club many times while he was at nearby Stanford University, the course has changed significantly since then, and the greens have been completely redone.
Putting is very much the last domino to fall for Woods. He won at Memorial despite finishing a very mediocre tied-for-41st — from 71 players to make the cut — on the greens.
"I just didn’t make anything from about 15 to 20 feet, basically nothing," Woods said. "But I made a ton of putts from 10 feet and in. So that’s a positive thing.
"On this golf course it’s going to be difficult to get the ball close. And I’m going to rely a lot on lag putting, and obviously we’re going to have to make those short putts.
"That part I’m not too worried about."
Neither is Woods worried about the clock ticking on his chase of Jack’s record.
"Well, Jack (won his last major) at 46, right? So I’ve got 10 (more years)," he said.
"(Tom) Watson almost pulled it off at 59. It can be done. We can play for a very long time. And that’s the great thing about staying in shape and lifting weights and being fit is that the playing careers have extended."
And though it’s been four years since Woods won a major, it should be noted that he’s played in only 12 during that span.
During his two previous swing overhauls, in 1998-99 and in 2004-05, Woods times went 10 majors without winning, so he’s not too far behind those evolutions, and this time has dealt with a scandal and two trips to the disabled list.
Nicklaus, for one, is still a believer in Woods.
When presenting the Memorial trophy, Nicklaus noted that Woods had won 14 majors.
"I suspect No. 15 will come for Tiger Woods in about two weeks," he said.