It’s Tiger vs. ex-caddie in US Open
Five years ago this week, Tiger Woods played the first two rounds of the US Open at Torrey Pines with Adam Scott.
It worked out nicely for him then. Woods beat Rocco Mediate in a Monday playoff to win his 14th major.
On Thursday, he’ll open another US Open alongside the freshly minted Masters champion, hoping to end a major-less drought few saw coming in 2008. Maybe it will be a good omen for a man in need of good vibes at majors, but I’m not sure Woods wouldn’t prefer a different pairing.
He has said all the right things about playing with Scott and world No. 2 Rory McIlroy at Merion Golf Club on Thursday and Friday, but the 800-pound gorilla in the room nobody’s talking about is caddie Steve Williams.
Williams, a hard-nosed New Zealander with a rugby player’s mentality, is on Scott’s bag after playing the role of Tonto to Woods’ Lone Ranger in 13 major championship wins.
He and Woods haven’t exactly cleared the air after their acrimonious parting in 2011.
Indeed, at their first meeting after Woods fired Williams, I thought the Kiwi — who has the firmest of handshakes when he’s not pumped up — was going to break Woods’ hand when they shook on the first tee at the Presidents Cup in Melbourne.
Assuming Tiger escapes with his hand intact Thursday, he’ll know that Williams, who ranks somewhere near Sergio Garcia on Woods’ Christmas card list, will have Scott raring to go.
Not that he’s keeping score or anything, but Williams will remind his man that Woods hasn’t finished higher than Scott at a major since he joined him. And, of course, he’ll remind him of the success of their strategy at the Masters, which was to get off to a fast start.
“The first hole’s just as important as the 72nd,” Williams likes to say.
Scott, anticipating the interest in reuniting Woods and Williams at a major, played down their rift on Monday.
“It will be a fun week, absolutely, some energy and electricity — playing with him at any time, there always is,” he said of Woods. “And given the hype around this grouping and being a major, it’s going to be an intense couple of days.
“But essentially that’s what we’re playing for. That’s a pairing you’d hope for on Sunday, also — because if you don’t enjoy that kind of stuff, it’s going to be tough for you to have success out here, because at some point if you’re playing well and winning a tournament, you’re going to have to try and beat him.
“And that’s what you want to be out here for. That’s why you spend the hours and test yourself.”
It was interesting that Scott did what Woods often does with rivals — doesn’t mention them by name.
It’s a part of the psychological warfare that’s inherent in a sport like golf — where the ball doesn’t move and so much depends on a player’s mental strength — and goes back decades, back to when Ben Hogan never called Arnold Palmer by name.
He was always just “fella.”
Not coincidentally, he was a threat to Hogan, too.
Woods, of course, will try not to get drawn into the game within the game. He has bigger fish to fry.
He has won four times this season but is coming off one of the worst finishes of his career at the Memorial two weeks ago. Merion’s not the kind of course that historically has suited him — a par 70 with heavy penalties for crookedness off the tee — but it might be that those old paradigms no longer apply.
Under Sean Foley, Woods has become much straighter off the tee, and it didn’t go unnoticed that driving was the only part of his game that was clicking at Muirfield Village, where Woods hit 46 of 56 fairways.
And let’s not forget that he won at TPC Sawgrass, a course that requires great discipline — and accuracy — off the tee.
Paul Azinger thinks we’ll know early if Woods will win No. 15 at Merion and resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors.
“When Tiger is hitting it poorly and winning, he has this air of confidence and this air of calm and patience,” Azinger says. “When he knows he doesn’t have it, he’s kicking clubs around and you can read his lips. So I would look early on at the pressure from within.
“I would look early on to see if he’s frustrated early and he’s reacting, or if he’s frustrated early and there’s no reaction.”
Or you could just study the look on Steve Williams’ face.