Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods practicing togethher. Pic: Simon Bruty-USGA
Sep 17: A little less than a decade and ago, Tiger Woods had an imminently forgettable US Open at Winged Foot. It was the year he had lost his Dad and was still dealing with the loss he had suffered less than two months earlier.
However, a couple of months after that he won The Open at Royal Liverpool. It was one of the most emotional moments of his career, as he cried on the shoulders of his then caddie, Steve Williams.
Now in another strange year, when the world itself has lost so much in every sense, Woods is here at Winged Foot at Mamoroneck, New York, attempting to move from 15 to 16 Majors.
Woods is grouped with Justin Thomas and the latest Major winner, Collin Morikawa, while World No. 1 Dustin Johnson goes out with Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau.
Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey and Jon Rahm played the first two days together and Rickie Fowler will guide young guns Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland.
Since the leg injury which put him out after the incredible win at the 2008 US Open and then his personal travails, the latest comeback beginning with his own event at the 2017 Hero World Challenge has been fairly fruitful.
He has played with a regularity that is typical of Woods – never too many in a row, except the time when he started 12 times in 20 weeks between May and September in 2018. He ended that with a win at the Tour Championship. He took 10 weeks off after that before coming out for his own Hero event in the Bahamas.
He took adequate care and rest and in 2019, he added his first Major since the 2008 US Open by winning his favourite, the Masters. A mixed run saw him make the FedExCup play-offs, but a withdrawal due to a back problem at Northern Trust and a middling finish at BMW saw him miss the Tour Championship, unable to defend a title he had won a year before that. Ten weeks off again, and then started at the ZOZO Championship and won it for his 82nd PGA Tour win to join Sam Snead. Six weeks later he almost won again at his own event in the Bahamas.
It was a fair start to 2020 with a Top-10 at Farmers and a forgettable week at Genesis, but then came Covid-19. He stayed away, first because there were no events and then because he wanted to be careful. He returned for a competitive round after 22 weeks. He has had four starts with a best of T-37 at PGA, made the play-offs but failed to make the Tour Championship once again. Now he is ready for a Major at Winged Foot, certainly not his favourite course, but one where he could grind his way around and make it count.
“This year I really haven’t putted as well as I wanted to,” said Woods. “And the times I did make a few swing mistakes, I missed it in the wrong spots. Consequently, I just didn’t have the right looks at it. I’ve compounded mistakes here and there that ended up not making me able to make pars or a birdie run, and consequently I haven’t put myself in contention to win events.”
This is his third start in a Major at Winged Foot. In 1997, when he was paired in the final round of the PGA Championship for the first time in with Phil Mickelson as a pro, he shot 75 and ended T-29. In 2006 he missed cut and now it is 2020.
In terms of difficulty, Woods ranks Winged Foot alongside Oakmont in Pennsylvania and notoriously nasty Open Championship venue Carnoustie.
“The winning scores here have never traditionally been very low,” Woods said. “I don’t see that changing this week.” Hale Irwin won the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot at 7 over par and Geoff Ogilvy won at 5 over in 2006.
The rough is really tough and high. Players could easily lose their golf balls with even slightly errant shots.
The weather is predicted to be cool – Woods wore rain pants for warmth during the practice round he played with Justin Thomas, with whom he is paired for the first two days.
There are a whole lot of players who will be looking to hoist that trophy on Sunday. Ranging from Dustin Johnson, who despite being one of the most consistent stars, would be irked with the fact that he has just one Major, as is the case with Justin Thomas.
Brooks Koepka the man who piled up four Majors in next to no time, is out with an injury, while Rory McIlroy, who also has four, will look to give his new-born daughter a Major present.
Collin Morikawa, just 23, has already begun his Major collection, while fellow young guns, Matt Wolff, 21, and Viktor Hovland, 22, are capable of joining him in the club. Wolff won his first Trophy in July, 2019, while Hovland did that in February, 2020. Morikawa won first in July and added a Major in August and now it is September.
If Phil Mickelson wants to add another page to his incredible resume and win the US Open to complete a Grand Slam, he will need to dig and at 50 that is going to be tough, but not impossible. He, too, has painful memories of 2006, when he double bogeyed the 72nd hole and lost by one. It was the closest he came in his six runner-up finishes at the US Open.