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Tiger Woods' age-old maladies, demanding Winged Foot make him a U.S. Open long shot

Tiger Woods practices on the 12th tee before

Tiger Woods practices on the 12th tee before the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament at Winged Foot Golf Club, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Mamaroneck. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — In retrospect, the brilliant career of Tiger Woods was like a comet flashing across the sports universe as he piled up 14 major championships from 1997 to 2008. But then, Woods plunged into an unfathomable 11-year major drought marred by personal problems and injuries before finally surfacing to win No. 15 at the Masters in April 2019, leaving him three short of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors.

Last October at the Zozo Championship in Japan, Woods won his 82nd PGA Tour title to tie Sam Snead for first all-time. Since then, Woods has made only six appearances in 2020 with just one top-10 finish. So, reality suggests he’s not likely to contend at the 120th U.S. Open, starting Thursday at Winged Foot Golf Club.

Given his physical struggles after four back surgeries, no one understands better than Woods the challenge that lies ahead of him at the age of 44. "You know, I think it gets harder to win as we all age," Woods said following his practice round on Tuesday. "When you’re in your prime, in your peak years, you have to take advantage of those opportunities so that when you get to the all-time marks, you have the opportunity."

As things stand now, it’s tough for Woods to put in the necessary work to gain the consistency he lacks. "I have to train in order to practice, and I have to get my back loose enough to where I’m able to practice," Woods explained. "That’s just the way it is . . . That’s my unfortunate reality."

When Woods triumphed 17 months ago at Augusta National Golf Club for his fifth Masters title, it was cause for celebration in the world of professional golf.

Reflecting on that experience, Woods said, "When I won the Masters last year, I was not feeling particularly well prior to that. My neck was bothering me. [But] for some reason, I felt physically better and my training sessions felt good. I changed shafts in my driver right before the event, and I was able to start turning the ball over.

"All of a sudden, I put myself in contention. I wasn’t leading, but I was near the lead. Each day, I progressively got a little bit better, and come Sunday, I put all the pieces together."

What a scenario it would be if Woods could put this indifferent season behind him and follow that progression at Winged Foot. But it seems far-fetched given the demands of the 7,477-yard West Course with its dense rough. In Woods’ estimation, Winged Foot and Oakmont are the two toughest courses in major championship golf just ahead of Carnoustie in Scotland.

Woods missed the cut at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, which was the first major he played following the death of his beloved father, Earl. "When I didn’t win the Masters that year, that was really tough to take because that was the last event my dad was ever going to watch me play," Woods said. "He passed not too long after that . . . I was not prepared to play and still dealing with the death of my dad."

What a joy it would be for golf fans if Woods could produce a little of the old Tiger magic this week. Just one problem: There will be no fans at Winged Foot thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their absence hurts Woods more than anyone in the field.

"For me in particular, I miss the energy and just the positiveness the fans bring and just that electricity," Woods said. "That’s something I’ve been playing in front of for over two decades. What we’re dealing with right now is not what we all want, but it’s our reality."

Sometimes, reality bites — even for Tiger Woods.

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