Tiger Woods thankful just to be back in the Major mix

Shinnecock Hills beckons 10 years after he claimed the last of his 14 Major victories

Tiger Woods: “To  play against these guys, the best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one that I don’t take for granted.” Photograph:  Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Tiger Woods: “To play against these guys, the best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one that I don’t take for granted.” Photograph: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

 

Tiger Woods stood by the flag on the sixth hole, one of those identified by players as a possible deal-breaker, and watched as his co-conspirators chipped up from the runoff area.

Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau took it in turns to play their shots, most good but some not-so-good, in their bids to learn the nuances of the green’s slick slopes and, as they did, Woods computed all the information to be analysed for when it really matters. Titles aren’t won on practice days.

That Woods’s brain was functioning in such a manner in the build-up to this US Open on the historic terrain of Shinnecock Hills – the only course to have held the championship in three different centuries – provided further evidence that this comeback from injury and surgery was the real deal.

It might be a decade since his 14th and last Major win, and he has experienced many dark days since that playoff triumph at Torrey Pines in 2008, but this is a man who watched last year’s championship on TV and wondered if he would ever again hit a golf ball never mind compete.

The flash of white teeth, a grin. A little shake of the head.

“There’s really no expectation to have the thought that I could actually be here again,” said Woods in assessing the distance he has travelled in a year.

To play against these guys, the best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one that I don’t take for granted

“I was just given the okay to start walking again [last June], to start moving around. I hadn’t been cleared to start lifting. It was about just having a standard life. Can I actually participate in my kids’ lives again? That was something I had missed for a few years, and that was the main goal of it.”

Step by small step, he edged towards a comeback. First, Woods was told he could start putting.

“Really? I can putt? And then it was chip . . . . so, to go from there to where I’m at now, I had no expectation of getting this far and a lot of this is pure bonus because of where I was at . . . . to play against these guys, the best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one that I don’t take for granted.”

A lot has changed since Woods last won a Major. From a point where he was by far the dominant player of his era, the decade since he last won a Major has seen no fewer than 30 different winners share the 39 Major championships played.

Ten years

Still, that he was not one of those 30 – even allowing for all that has happened, his dark days when hope of playing again seemed lost – surprised Woods as much as anyone.

“Yeah, I would think that I would have been there on a number of occasions to win a Major championship since the ’08 US Open and I haven’t done it. And no, I don’t like the feeling. I’ve certainly had a nice run where I’ve won a few. Unfortunately, over the last ten years, I haven’t. The first few years of my career, I did well.”

I worked on it pretty hard this past week, just had to hit a lot of putts, just put in the legwork. And I was able to do that

The Tiger then and the Tiger now are different in so many ways but the one constant is that desire to claim a “W” – a win – to add to his CV of achievements. We’ve had glimpses of his potential, most notably at the Valspar championship, and also recently at the Memorial where he played beautifully tee-to-green only for his putter to behave like a disobedient child intent on mischief.

After that poor putting performance in front of Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host, among others, Woods retreated to his home in Florida where he got back to family life with his children . . . and also put in the reps with the putter.

“I worked on it pretty hard this past week, just had to hit a lot of putts, just put in the legwork. And I was able to do that. My stroke feels good, and we’re back on old bumpy poa [greens], so hopefully I’ll hit good solid putts and see what happens.”

And for this first US Open appearance since 2015, Woods has avoided the congested traffic around the Hamptons by staying on his 155-foot yacht – appropriately named “Privacy” – at Sag Harbor, “ a cute little town” as he called it.

But the mere fact that Woods has managed to put himself into the frame on a number of occasions has ensured he comes here with the glass-half-full optimistic approach rather than the glass-half-empty one of pessimism.

“I’ve given myself chances to win, which I didn’t know if I was ever going to do again; and, then again, I’m not happy with the fact that I didn’t win because I loved how it felt being there . . . I’m very thankful to have had those opportunities, I didn’t know I was going to have them again.”

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