News & Opinion

‘Open Season’ begins at Jack’s place

DUBLIN, Ohio – Welcome to Open Season. 

This is golf’s No. 2 Most Wonderful Time of the Year (with No. 1 being the Masters in April, when the scent of spring blossoms makes Augusta National even more beguiling … if that’s possible).

The U.S. Open is two weeks away. A month later, we’ve got the British Open at Carnoustie. With the Memorial Tournament towing those two majors in its wake, it’s almost like having 2½ majors in a six-week span.

No offense to the Memorial, but this is the week when the players start talking about the U.S. Open, in part because this is the week when the media start asking them about the U.S. Open. It’s thicker than usual this time, in fact, because a cliche staple of sportswriting is the 10-years-after story. Guess who’s celebrating a 10-year Open anniversary this summer?

Tiger Woods.

It was 2008 when Woods, playing despite multiple microfractures in his left leg, limped around Torrey Pines, made a clutch putt on the 72nd hole, then hobbled around 19 more holes Monday before finally defeating pesky Rocco Mediate. It ranked among Woods’ finest moments. Ditto for Mediate.

So, Woods and the Open were Wednesday’s soup du jour here at Muirfield Village Golf Club. Woods spent Monday and Tuesday at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, preparing for the Open just as he used to do when he was winning most of them. You probably should take note of that fact. Woods hasn’t competed since three weeks ago at the Players Championship, where his scintillating weekend charge came up short and he tied for 11th.

What Woods learned about Shinnecock Hills is that it’s not the course he played in 2004, the last time it hosted the Open. 

“Unfortunately, it rained the day before I got there and the course played really long,” said Woods, who tied for 17th in 2004, 14 shots behind winner Retief Goosen. “I’m sure it won’t play as long as we played it – 7,500 yards, par 70, is a long golf course. They’ve made some pretty significant changes. I believe more than 500 trees are gone, and they added 500 yards.”

Woods seems more at ease and comfortable – even happy – when he’s talking with the media this year. He’s likable, something that he didn’t allow himself to be during his first go-round with the world. I can only assume that reclaiming a pain-free existence and the ability to compete in golf have changed his outlook. He calls his return a “blessing,” a word that he certainly never uttered until this comeback tour.

It’s difficult not to appreciate the way he smiles more and even gives more effort to answering most (but not all) questions – for instance, some of the details about his run-up to that unforgettable Torrey Pines victory in ’08.

He had been sidelined from golf since the 2008 Masters because of his leg. He had not walked 18 holes on a golf course before the Open’s first round that Thursday. He tried a practice nine Sunday before that Open at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, a course where he had been a member since he was young. He shot 53, which was disturbing.

“I was still trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to play with a knee brace,” Woods said. “My knee was moving all over the place because it was broken. So, I said, I’ll give it one last chance with a brace.”

After the 53, he tossed the brace in the trash en route to Torrey Pines and decided that he had to figure out how to play without a brace, which he apparently accomplished during Tuesday’s practice round.

“My leg was busted, but I could make a golf swing [up to] impact,” Woods said. “I just convinced myself to go ahead and suck it up and hit the shot. It’s going to hurt afterwards, but I can still hit a good shot.”

Everyone remembers the clutch birdie putt that he sank on the 72nd hole to tie Mediate and Woods’ emotional reaction. That putt was indicative of how Woods played that week. Woods said he has had only three other majors at which he putted as well as he did at Torrey Pines: the ’97 Masters, 2000 U.S. Open and 2000 British Open.

“I don’t think I really missed a putt inside 10 feet in any of those four major championships,” Woods said. “And I needed it at Torrey because I didn’t really hit the ball as well as those other three majors.”

These are the kinds of insights Woods never previously offered. They are refreshing. 

He did something else that he might not have done a few years ago, either. He answered a question about his last visit to the Memorial, in 2015. His game was a mess at the time. He shot 85 in the third round, went off first Sunday, played by himself and shot 74. The old Tiger – well, probably no one would have dared to ask Woods to recall that performance.

“I tried and, unfortunately, that’s all I had,” Woods said of the 85. “I take great pride in never bagging it. I’ve tried in every single round and tried to fight to the end. I hit two or three rounds in the 80s in my career. That was the highest one. It didn’t feel very good. Hitting it as bad as I did on this golf course just wasn’t good enough.”

Woods even joked about playing in a onesome in the final round: “I didn’t want to have anyone watch me play, the way I was playing.”

One other thing you should know about Shinnecock Hills is that it shouldn’t be compared to a British links. 

“Shinnecock doesn’t give you the opportunity to run balls into the greens too much,” said Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who needs only a Masters victory to complete the career Grand Slam. “You still have to fly it on the greens. Where an Open Championship on a links course you can run it in, you still have to flight your irons at Shinnecock; you still have to be able to stop it pretty quickly, especially if they get the greens as firm as they want them.”

There is nothing wrong with talking about the U.S. Open during the Memorial. Even tournament host Jack Nicklaus is happy to do so. He’s not the least bit worried about his tournament being sandwiched between two majors next year – the PGA Championship, which moves to May, and the U.S. Open, two weeks after the Memorial, just like this year.

“There will be no reason why we won’t have an even better field next year,” Nicklaus said. “Sitting two weeks after the PGA and two weeks before the U.S. Open, I can’t imagine anybody who is really serious about wanting to win the U.S. Open not being here. They’re going to have to play golf sometime, and I never liked to play the week before or after a major. So, the Memorial sits in a great spot.”

The Memorial will remain at what amounts to Golf’s Grand Central Station at the beginning of June, aka the start of Open Season.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle