Woods Awaits U.S. Open Worry-Free

By Andrew Carter
Updated: June 13, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa. — Tiger Woods was joking, laughing. About life, about golf — both of which are one in the same for the world’s top-ranked player. Someone here asked him for his favorite hole at Oakmont Country Club, where the U.S. Open begins Thursday. “The 19th [hole] is great, man,” Woods replied, and then he flashed that big grin. And what about the gnarly rough? Did the mowers make a difference? “I know they had the mowers out there,” Woods said. “I don’t know if they did anything.” Woods, who sat on Tuesday afternoon with a microphone in his hand, entertaining questions from a horde of reporters that numbered in the hundreds, seemed loose up there. These are good times for Tiger. He has played a relaxed schedule of just eight tournaments all season, three of them victories. He leads the money list with more than $4 million in earnings. He’s one of the favorites, like always, to win the Open. In a few weeks he’ll complete a long-awaited personal goal when he hosts his own PGA Tour tournament, the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Maryland. And he is about to become a father any week now. His mood heading into the 107th Open is a lot different than it was headed into the 106th Open. During those dark times one year ago, Woods was attempting to recover from the death of his father, Earl, who had died of cancer about a month and a half before the Open began. “Last year was a complete 180 of where I am now in my life,” Woods said Tuesday in one of his more thoughtful moments. “I had not played a tournament since Augusta, my father obviously passed away in that time frame. I wasn’t quite ready to play until I got to the U.S. Open.” And then his play once he arrived at Winged Foot Golf Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y., made it clear he wasn’t ready to play at all. Woods finished the first round with a 6-over-par 76.

He followed that with the same score in the second round and missed the cut of a major championship for the first time of his professional career — and the first time overall since the ’96 Masters, back when he was a 20-year-old kid playing for free.

After he left Winged Foot a year ago, he refused to blame his poor play on the loss of his dad or his emotional state. He admitted here, though, it was “probably not exactly the best tournament to come back to.”

Yet Woods learned, like always. The year after he was cut from the Masters in ’96, he came back the next year, won it and set several records in the process. And in the next major after the Open a year ago, he stood on the 18th green of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club in England in tears, the British Open champion.

That victory started a streak — Woods won his last six tournaments of ’06 and his first of ’07. Which brings us to the present, and Oakmont, where maybe the most pressing thought on Woods’ mind these days has little to do with golf.

“I’m going to be a father shortly,” he said. “I think that’s” He trailed off, trying to find the right words. “It’s a complete polar opposite of where I was last year at this time.”

And yet, as different as things are between now and then, Woods’ play over the past 11 months has brought back memories of him at his most dominant.

It hasn’t been too long, after all, since 2000, when he won three of four majors and what seemed like every tournament he entered.

“Tiger can make three Hall of Fame careers in one person,” said Johnny Miller, the lead golf analyst on NBC. Miller shot the lowest closing round in U.S. Open history, a 63 in the ’73 Open, also at Oakmont. “He does things like nobody since Arnold Palmer did. Nobody can recover like Tiger.”

It’s true in more ways than one.

A year ago, while Woods was down emotionally and on the golf course, Phil Mickelson had the chance to win the U.S. Open and supplant Woods as the best in the game. A year later, Woods is still No. 1, and the margin between him and others has rarely been larger.

Mickelson, a father of three, didn’t even want to give Woods parenting advice.

“Yeah, me giving Tiger advice doesn’t really feel right,” Mickelson said. “About anything.”

Besides, Woods has a couple pretty good examples to follow when it comes to parenting. His mom was always the disciplinarian, the role he thinks he’ll adopt. And his dad was always the friend, the mentor.

“I was very lucky to have two great parents,” Woods said. “I was never afraid to go fail because I knew that I would always come home to a home of love.”

His relationship with his folks is what made things so difficult a year ago. He woke up one day and one of his foundations was missing.

Woods hasn’t won the U.S. Open since 2002. He has won every other major since at least once. He knows Oakmont will be tough.

“Probably one of the most difficult tests I think we’ll ever face,” he said.

It might be true. Oakmont should be a good test. Just not as tough as the one Woods experienced a year ago around this time.