PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The real Tiger Woods was the one who won at Augusta, not the one who missed the cut at Bethpage. That, anyway, is the assessment of the Tiger Woods who has shown up this week for the U.S. Open, the one who said on Tuesday about his health during the recent PGA Championship: “I was in rough shape.”
He declined to be specific on whether he had a touch of the flu or his bones and joints were just sore, saying, “All of the above.” Woods did say that he is ready to go this week, although at Bethpage Black he had said that he was “fine,” so who knows? He did not play a practice round at Pebble Beach Tuesday, but he pointed out that he took a similar rest day during Masters week.
In any case, he asserted that he is not better suited to win here than he was on the longer, hillier Long Island course. “Well, if I feel good, then I feel like I can play any venue,” he said. “It’s just that when I’m stiff and not moving as well, it becomes a little bit more difficult.”
If nothing else, the U.S. Open at this venue evokes one of his greatest memories. It was here in 2000 that he won by a record 15 strokes, a feat that neither he nor anyone else is likely to duplicate.
“I still remember most of the shots I hit that week,” he said. “It was just one of those weeks where I don’t know how I pulled it off, but on seaside poa annua [greens], I never missed a putt inside ten feet for a week.”
Poa annua grass, which also is common on Long Island, can be bumpy or at least unpredictable. His consistency on those surfaces added to the quality of a result that still has golfers shaking their heads. “I kind of felt sorry for everybody else, I think, really, is what I felt. It wasn’t a fair fight at that point,” said Justin Rose, who didn’t play in a U.S. Open until 2003.
Ernie Els, who tied for second back then and is in the field this year on a special exemption, said, “On the back nine, it was like a victory walk for him. But remember Tiger back in those days, he was very intense. He was really playing every shot a hundred percent to his ability, and he was not backing off one inch. I remember he made a putt on 16 for par and he was fist pumping, and I was like, ‘The tournament is over.’ ”
Despite all of the talk about a new calmer, happier Woods, he still has an edgy streak. He apparently still is not thrilled with remarks in a book by his former swing coach Hank Haney. When Haney was suspended from his radio show for comments about the LPGA tour, Woods said, “He got what he deserved” (not showing the indulgence Woods has received from the public for his own missteps).
How much fire remains in Woods’ muscles and surgically fused back remains to be seen. Which was the aberration, the remarkable week in Augusta or the painful one at Bethpage?
“Yeah, it’s not the same body that I had back in 2000. I don’t think any of us have the same body we had 19 years ago,” he said. “But athletically, that’s one of the challenges. How do you compete against kids that were born — for me, born in the 2000s? They were born after I won this damn tournament. So that’s what’s different, what makes this sport so unique, is that you’re able to cross so many different generations.”