Woods goes for rare US Open repeat
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Tiger Woods is defending his title at the U.S. Open and his turf at Bethpage Black.
Twenty years have passed since Curtis Strange became the last player to win back-to-back in the U.S. Open, the longest current drought among the four majors. Woods will have a chance for the third time this decade.
It has been even longer since a U.S. Open champion tried to repeat on a golf course where he was the last player to win. That was Jack Nicklaus in 1973 at Oakmont, where his hopes ended when Johnny Miller shot 63 in the final round to win.
Such a score is unlikely at Bethpage Black, a stout test even when the U.S. Open is not in town. No one shot better than 66 in 2002, and Woods was the only player to finish under par, winning by three shots over Phil Mickelson.
But going back to the Black has made his odds of repeating better than ever.
"Bethpage feeds right into his game," Strange said. "It eliminates even more players in the field than most Opens because it's a long, hard golf course. After his performance last week, and all the skeptics writing him off, I think he's a heavy, heavy favorite."
Typical of Woods, plenty of history is at stake when the 109th U.S. Open gets under way Thursday.
He is trying to tie the record with a fourth U.S. Open title, and join Willie Anderson from a century ago as the only players to win the national championship four times in a decade.
A victory would also give him a Grand Slam of repeats. Woods already has won back-to-back in the Masters (2001-02), British Open (2005-06) and twice in the PGA Championship (1999-2000 and 2006-07).
Bobby Jones (U.S. Open and British Open) and Walter Hagen (British Open and PGA Championship) are the only other players who have repeated in more than one major.
Strange has been fielding questions about his distinction since 2001, and he is surprised it has been 20 years since a repeat.
"It's not so much what I did, it's what others didn't do," he said. "I certainly expect Tiger to do it because of how good he is. At the same time, Nicklaus didn't do it."
That Woods is in position to go for a repeat U.S. Open title is still hard to believe.
In what he called "probably the best ever" of his 14 majors, Woods won last year at Torrey Pines despite a double stress fracture in his left leg and shredded ligaments in his left knee, an injury so severe that he required season-ending surgery a week later.
Limping and wincing over the weekend on a knee so swollen that he couldn't see his kneecap at the end of each day, Woods made two eagles on the back nine Saturday to take the lead, made a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole Sunday to force a playoff, then rallied again before finally beating Rocco Mediate in 19 holes.
"What he did to get there was silly," Mediate said. "But it's Tiger. That's what he does. That's why he's the best."
His return after an eight-month absence is going slower than he imagined, and Woods was forced to lower his expectations. Even so, he has gone 17 consecutive starts in stroke play without finishing out of the top 10, and he goes to Bethpage having won the Memorial with a 65 in the final round and his most accurate performance off the tee in 11 years.
He doesn't believe knee surgery slowed his march toward Nicklaus' record 18 majors, rather helped in the long run.
"It's five to pass him, four to tie him," Woods said. "That's a lot. Most of the guys in my generation haven't won more than three, so it's quite a challenge. I probably wouldn't have had as good a chance to put myself in position ... if I hadn't had the surgery. My leg was deteriorating the past couple of years. I'm healthy enough where I think I can give it go."
Woods isn't the only comeback story at this U.S. Open.
His chief rival this decade is Mickelson, who some thought wouldn't make it to Bethpage when he disclosed last month that his wife, Amy, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Lefty immediately suspended his PGA Tour schedule, although more tests indicated the cancer might have been caught early, and there was no need to rush into surgery.
That has been pushed back to the first week of July, and Mickelson will give himself yet another shot in the major that has haunted him. At 38, he already has tied the wrong kind of U.S. Open record — four times a runner-up.
Three of those have come in New York — Winged Foot, Shinnecock Hills and Bethpage Black.
Perhaps the distraction of a family crisis will work to his advantage. Mickelson at least can count on the gallery, which was smitten with him as he tried to rally against Woods in 2002 and has afforded him rock star treatment every time he returns.
"My quest is to win my first U.S. Open after four seconds, numerous close calls," Mickelson said. "But right now, I'm just fortunate that I'm going to be able to play, and I hope to play well."
Also returning is Sergio Garcia, still without a major, his prospects not as bleak as they were in 2002, when he played in the final pairing with Woods. Garcia finished last year at No. 2 in the world, and he had a mathematical chance to replace Woods in the spring.
But he has been in a malaise most of this year, mainly from his split with Greg Norman's daughter. That might make him a target of New York fans who remember his constant re-gripping of the club, and an obscene gesture Garcia made when he got fed up with the fans.
For some, however, that's the charm of Bethpage Black.
This is public golf at its finest, a favorite spot on Long Island for seven decades, so good that golfers are willing to sleep in their cars overnight with hopes of paying $50 to play the Black Course.
Justin Leonard said it was like playing on a course with 50,000 members in attendance. This U.S. Open requires accurate tee shots, strength for balls that wind up in the rough, touch around the greens and thick skin.
"The people are a little more vocal," he said. "Some other places, you know what people are thinking. They go ahead and verbalize in New York. There's a good energy up there. When you play well, people tend to get behind you, and it's a lot of fun."
And when you don't?
"Nobody notices, and they don't care," he said. "But at least they don't boo you like at Yankee Stadium."
Woods appears to block out everything around him, but he's listening. He recalls hearing so many fans talk about how they play the course, where they hit the ball. He loves the idea of the national championship going public, perhaps because Woods played most of his golf as a kid on public courses. All three of his U.S. Open titles have come on courses the public can play — Bethpage, Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach, although the latter isn't cheap.
He also pays attention to history, especially that no one has repeated at the U.S. Open in 20 years.
"In today's culture of being bombarded by facts and statistics, everybody knows about it — especially Tiger. He doesn't miss anything," Strange said. "But the only thing this means to him is another notch in the quest for 18 majors. Back-to-back doesn't mean a thing."