Will wounded Tiger Woods be able to overcome the beast that is Merion?
Tiger Woods obviously winced, again and again, because of something in his left elbow that hurt when he tried to hit out of the broccoli-dense rough at Merion Golf Club. Woods was asked what he felt to make him react like that and he said, "Pain."
"It is what it is and you move on," he said after he finished his rain-delayed opening round of the U.S. Open yesterday morning and before he shot par 70 in his second round and reached the halfway point at 3 over. That isn't great, but it is not bad, either, this year. Mostly it is his launching point for a weekend of whatever more pain the Open might inflict.
Pain usually is a key component in the U.S. Open, but it almost always involves psychological pain. That is why we like to watch it so much. Seeing the great players sweat and struggle one week out of the year can be quite entertaining.
Woods, though, has found a way to tie the Open to physical pain, as did Ben Hogan on this very patch of earth, winning the championship 16 months after a nearly fatal car accident. The current world No. 1 is feeling the effects now of an injury he suffered during his winning performance at The Players last month. When he was asked late Friday if the elbow felt better or worse than it had after his first round, he repeated his non-answer answer: "Well, it is what it is."
That's one of Woods' quirks. He declines to get specific about his injuries. On the other hand, he is not shy about letting the public know something is wrong. Repeatedly during the past two days, when an iron shot from the rough went astray, he flinched or wore a pained expression or placed his left arm behind his back.
On yet another hand, the guy has proved he has an amazing tolerance for pain. His most recent major championship, the 2008 U.S. Open five years ago this week, was accomplished -- we found out later -- on what was essentially a broken leg.
He was introduced early to the connection between injury and the Open in his very first championship, at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton 18 years ago.
"I didn't last very long," he recalled the other day of the time he qualified as the U.S. Amateur champion. His problem then was trying to hit out of the deep rough on the third hole in the second round. He injured his wrist. He tried to keep on going, but he aggravated it on the fifth hole. By the sixth tee, he was shaking hands to say goodbye to playing companions Ernie Els and Nick Price.
Some of us recall standing vigil outside the trainer's trailer, waiting for him to emerge. We can remember his father, Earl, saying at the time, "This is just like a teenager who hasn't physically matured."
Earl's son sure has filled out since then. But his health is one of the big question marks on Woods' quest to beat Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. In winning four tournaments so far this season, Woods regularly has cited the fact that he finally feels fit again.
We will see what becomes of this elbow. Friday, we saw signs of why Woods won so often in the past -- digging two balls out of the deep rough on the par-5 fourth yet making birdie -- and why he hasn't won majors lately -- scuffing a chip on No. 7 and making bogey.
He does have a gift for turning any perceived slight or obstacle into a motivational tool. A sore elbow isn't a broken leg, but it might do.