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U.S. Open: Tiger Woods grateful to be back in field after multiple back surgeries

Tiger Woods says he's missed playing the U.S.

Tiger Woods says he's missed playing the U.S. Open, and some fans out at Shinnecock Hills are hoping he plays well through the weekend. (Newsday / Arnold Miller, Raychel Brightman, Jeffrey Basinger)

One year ago, Tiger Woods was recovering from his fourth back surgery and had just received the go-ahead from his doctors to begin walking. So, he watched the U.S. Open from his couch and texted back and forth with his pals on the PGA Tour about how Erin Hills was playing.

Coming from that vantage point, Woods on Tuesday expressed his profound gratitude to be back in the field for the 118th U.S. Open Thursday at Shinnecock Hills. After undergoing a spinal fusion procedure, Woods believed his meteoric career might have flamed out early.

“There was really no expectation I could actually be here again,” Woods said. “I was just given the okay to start walking, to start moving around again, and this was [last] June. It was about just having my standard of life. Forget golf. Can I actually participate in my kids’ lives again? That’s something I had missed for a few years, and that was the main goal.

“To go from there to where I’m at now, I had no expectation of getting this far. A lot of this is pure bonus because I didn’t know where I was. To play against the best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one I don’t take for granted.”

The U.S. Open marks only the 10th appearance since Woods returned to the PGA Tour. He has one runner-up finish in the Valspar Championship, two top-10 finishes and six finishes in the top 25. By any measure, that’s a promising start to what Woods admits is the final phase of his career. But he hasn’t won yet and was asked if that has been a source of consternation.

Woods answered with a healthy dose of perspective. “There’s two ways of looking at that,” he said. “I’ve given myself chances to win, which I didn’t know if I was ever going to do again. But also 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 because I didn’t know if I was going to have them again.”

At The Memorial, Woods went low in the second and third rounds only to falter in the final round. Commenting on the telecast of the event he runs, Jack Nicklaus said he felt winning was a matter of time for Woods, but he needs to get used to the feeling of being in contention once again.

“I was very excited to get back in the mix on that Sunday at Valspar,” Woods said of finishing one stroke behind winner Paul Casey. “Honestly, I felt very calm. I’ve been there so many times throughout my career that it felt very familiar. But I would like to get there more times. Therein lies the trick, trying to get myself there.”

It has been an unfathomable 10 years since Woods last won a major at the 2008 U.S. Open, where he played with a torn ACL and a fractured leg and still won in an 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate on Monday. At that point, he had won 14 majors in a span of 11 years and seemed a lock to break the record of 18 major titles Nicklaus set over a 24-year span.

But personal problems in his marriage that led to a divorce and recurring injuries combined to derail Woods’ career. Woods won six times in 2009, three in 2012 and had five titles in 2013. But he has played in just 29 events the past five years and hasn’t won in that stretch.

“I have been there on a number of occasions to win a major championship since the ’08 U.S. Open, and I haven’t done it,” Woods said. “No, I don’t like that feeling. I’ve certainly had a nice run where I’ve won a few. Unfortunately, over the last 10 years, I haven’t.”

Asked if the pressure will be compounded if he has a shot to win his 15th major on Sunday at Shinnecock Hills, Woods said, “In a major, the mistakes are magnified, and this is our toughest test. Hopefully, I can play well enough to put myself there. Whether there will be any extra pressure, I think it’s natural there would be. That would be a nice problem to have, and hopefully I can do that.”

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