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As U.S. Open approaches at Shinnecock, Tiger Woods says he’s not far from winning

Tiger Woods lines up a putt during the

Tiger Woods lines up a putt during the final round of The Players Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on May 13. Credit: Getty Images / Jamie Squire

More than a year before Tiger Woods officially proclaimed, “Hello world!” at his premiere as a professional golfer, he made a statement at Shinnecock Hills and the U.S. Open. Literally, he used the occasion in 1995 to write and issue a statement about himself.

The 19-year-old had been a phenomenon since he was 2, was a national amateur star and had played in the Masters. But he realized that many people still misunderstood or misidentified him. So before he played his first U.S. Open round, he sent a missive to the media saying he was “equally proud” to be both African-American and Asian.

“That is who I am,” he wrote. “Now, with your cooperation, I hope I can just be a golfer and a human being.”

Who could have imagined the ride he would take in both of those roles? While educated observers saw instantly that he was a prodigy — Dana Quigley called him “The eighth wonder of the world” after a practice round at Shinnecock — it would have been hard to predict he would win 14 major championships (one of them on a broken leg), become one of the world’s most recognizable celebrities, change the scope of his entire sport and experience unfathomable depths.

Here he is, back again in Southampton, an immensely different golfer and person in a vastly different world. Woods is 10 years removed from his most recent major title, the U.S. Open playoff over Rocco Mediate on June 16, 2008. He is competing against top young players whom he inspired to become golfers.

In a way, he has come full cycle. Woods left Shinnecock early in the 1995 Open, five holes into his second round after hurting his wrist in the wiry fescue. This time, he arrives after having come back from pain. He has said his recovery from last-ditch spinal-fusion surgery last year qualifies him as “a walking miracle.”

In a way, this is just like 1995 for him. Now, like then, he is trying to make his way. He will again come to Shinnecock looking to make a statement, not with words this time but with a revived game and a second crack at life.

“This is all new to me,” he said at The Players last month. “This is all exciting because I just didn’t know what to expect. Twelve months ago, if you would have said, ‘You’re going to have a chance to win a couple of events this year,’ I would have said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I can barely walk.’

“There’s no way I would have predicted I would be at this point at the beginning of the year, the way I was just coming back and just trying to get a feel for it,” he said. “But now I feel like I’ve got my ‘playing feels’ and I’m playing tournament golf. I’m not that far off from winning golf tournaments.”

He’s who you come to see

Judging by television ratings during his 2018 appearances and the responses at tournaments, Woods will be the most galvanizing person at Shinnecock this week. Fans apparently have moved past their reticence following serial revelations about his numerous affairs. Crowds do not badger him about the video last year that showed him being arrested for driving under the influence.

On Sunday, May 13, at The Players, the leader and eventual champion Webb Simpson made what was probably the pivotal birdie putt on No. 7 in relative privacy and quiet. The throng and the noise were with Woods as he was stringing birdies several holes ahead.

He had been a star attraction at the 1995 U.S. Open, too. Because he was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, he was placed in the traditional threesome with the previous year’s U.S. and British Open winners, Ernie Els and Nick Price, respectively.

“I knew him and had seen him play. You could see that this young man had something very special. That was the first impression,” Price said recently, adding that he had played a practice round with Woods at the Masters that April. “His golf swing was sound, he hit the ball a long way. He had a terrific short game. He wasn’t too scared to try different types of shots. He had a creative golfing mind. At that early age, he showed a lot more creativity than some guys twice his age. He also had that inner confidence. He was no flash in the pan.”

As for how the Stanford freshman looked in that U.S. Open cameo, Price said: “He was playing OK. I don’t remember him playing real ly well.”

In fact, Woods was 8 over par by the time he withdrew on the sixth hole Friday — foreshadowing a career of health problems. Still, Price said: “I think we all thought that if he plays his cards right, does all the right things, that he’s destined for greatness. This guy had the ability to reach heights that many of us couldn’t. It’s incredible the heights he has reached.”

Woods has brought the entire sport with him. Prize money is stratospheric now, compared with what it was before he debuted as a pro at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open (the buildup peaked with a news conference at which he said, “I guess, Hello world!”). Players are far stronger and more fit than they were back then because they all have followed his example.

The game’s gold standard was raised forever by a dominant decade — including the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage — that Phil Mickelson called, “The most remarkable golf in the history of the game.”

America always has known him on a first-name basis. Tiger’s 2008 U.S. Open victory became almost mythical when he revealed afterward that he had played on a broken leg, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Adam Scott, who played the first two rounds at Torrey Pines with Woods and Mickelson, recalled: “I think we knew he was struggling but it was hard to tell how much. It was just kind of vintage Tiger stuff. How did he win with one leg and maybe not even a B game?”

Golf people learned that Woods would have to miss most of the next season after knee surgery, but they easily assumed he would resume winning majors as soon as he came back. “To think that would be his last major for a decade,” Scott said, “was unfathomable, really.”

Just as unthinkable would have been the sight of him headlining tabloid TV shows for weeks after his then-wife, Elin, fired a golf club through the window of the vehicle he was driving. Perhaps the revelations about his personal conduct cost him mojo. Then his back became so troublesome that he said he could not get out of bed sometimes. He showed up for the 2017 Masters only long enough to sit uncomfortably at the Champions Dinner and tell everyone his career was through.

He had the spinal-fusion surgery for quality of life reasons more than quality of golf. To his surprise, he felt much better. By the spring, he was in tournaments and on leader boards.

“It’s good to see him smiling,” said Jason Day, one of Woods’ successors as world No. 1 and one of the younger players who always has idolized him. “He says he’s stiff, but he looks pretty loose to me with how far he’s hitting it. He’s hitting it absolutely miles. I definitely believe he will win again this year. It’s tough to win out here, but it’s nice to see him play well and pain-free. For a while you could tell in his walk, you could tell in his face that he was just uncomfortable with his whole back issue.”

When Woods was at his best, a smile was not his signature. He was not the avuncular figure who golfers are seeing this season. In the new book “Tiger Woods,” authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian wrote that in Woods’ return in 2010 after the tabloid scandals, his agent told the golfer to “stop being a nice guy.”

He does not seem to be taking that same path this time. Woods has spoken about how fortunate he feels, how “special” it is to be back on the course. “He’s more engaging with everyone,” veteran tour player and friend Steve Stricker said. “It’s fun to see him having fun, and healthy. I’m sure his goals are lofty, knowing him. But I think he likes the process.”

That is how the Woods that Shinnecock will see this week will be like the one it first saw in 1995. He is in process.

Plus, it is very likely that the 42-year-old will say something just like he said when he was a teenager preparing for his first U.S. Open: “I feel, if I go to a tournament, I go there to win and nothing else. Why go to a tournament if you’re not going there to win?”

Tiger’s majors

Masters: 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005

U.S. Open: 2000, 2002, 2008

British Open: 2000, 2005, 2006

PGA: 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007

Most career majors won

No. GolferFirstLast

18Jack Nicklaus1962 U.S. Open1986 Masters

14Tiger Woods1997 Masters2008 U.S. Open

11Walter Hagen1914 U.S. Open1929 British Open

9Ben Hogan1946 PGA 1953 British Open

9Gary Player1959 British Open1978 Masters

Tiger in the U.S. Open

Tiger’s travails

1994

December: Surgery to remove two benign tumors and scar tissue in his left knee.

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2002

December: Surgery to remove fluid inside and outside his ACL in his left knee and to remove benign cysts.

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2007

July: Ruptures ACL while running on a golf course.

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2008

April: Arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage damage.

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2008

June: Reconstructive surgery on his left knee to repair the ACL and is out for eight months.

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2009

November: Crashes his SUV outside his Florida home. Over the next few weeks, his personal life unravels amid reports of multiple extramarital affairs. Spends 45 days in a clinic.

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2011

May: Withdraws from The Players Championship and takes a break of nearly three months.

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2014

April: Has back surgery a week before the Masters.

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2015

September: Has a second back surgery.

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2015

October: Has another back surgery.

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2017

February: Withdraws with back spasms after shooting 77 in opening round of Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

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2017

April: Has a fourth back surgery to fuse discs in back.

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2017

May 30: Arrested and briefly jailed in Jupiter, Fla., on suspicion of DUI.

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