John Huggan: Tiger Woods toughs it out

AS YOU’D expect of a three-time winner, Tiger Woods has America’s national championship all figured out.

Injured Woods takes rough with the smooth as he plays the long game on 'short' course that makes it hard for best to excel. Picture: Reuters

The world’s best golfer is well aware that a typical US Open is not a mere sprint but a marathon, a grind rather than the proverbial walk in the park. And that has certainly been the case at Merion over the past three days – albeit with a twist. On a course measuring under 7,000-yards, but with an almost unique mix of very short and very long holes, the game’s most gifted practitioners have been forced to constantly switch between the prosaic accumulation of pars and the more glamorous chasing of birdies.

“This is one of those golf courses where there’s some easy holes and there’s some hard holes that follow,” confirmed Woods. “You’ve got to take care of the easy holes and try and get through the hard ones.”

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Which is nothing new. In the wake of the 1934 US Open at Merion, twice champion Walter Hagen had this to say about the Hugh Wilson design: “This is the type of course where you feel after every round you play that you can break 70 the next round. You are sure of it. But somehow you don’t. You are even surer the next time, but something always happens that you weren’t looking for.”

In Woods’ case, the unexpected didn’t perhaps live up to its name. Animatedly grimacing in pain after hacking out of heavy rough on the fifth hole during the first round, the 14-time major champion owned up to having injured his left wrist during the Players Championship at Sawgrass last month. It was an admission that perhaps goes some way to explaining his uncharacteristically inept display at Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament two weeks ago.

Still, struggling with his much-analysed technique hasn’t been Woods’ biggest problem in what is his 18th US Open appearance. Along with the rest of the field, he has found it all but impossible to separate himself from his competition. Faced with a classic course shamelessly manipulated by the introduction of seemingly endless swathes of long grass (there are apparently 16 more acres of rough than there were in 1982, the last time Merion hosted a US Open), the competitors have been summarily reduced to playing each hole in almost identical fashion. This, of course, is not good news for elite performers such as Woods. The last thing he wants is to be dragged down to everyone else’s level.

Such tactics are typically employed by the United States Golf Association in a futile attempt to conceal the undeniable fact that the modern ball goes too far when struck by today’s leading professionals. So the only way to make things difficult – rather than fun and interesting – and keep the winning score within a range the USGA deems acceptable is to take the driver out of the player’s hands as often as possible.

That’s manipulative and/or devious enough, but the subsequent absence of strategy – the “tactic” on each hole is simply to “kick” the tee-shot between the “goalposts” formed by the rough bordering each side of the fairway – leads to a soul-destroying sameness for both players and spectators. Such banality – again – can only adversely affect the ability of the talented to leave the rest behind.

Given all of the above – and the fact that he is currently performing at a level some way short of his peerless best – it is a credit to Woods that he has played as well as he has so far this week. According to some high-profile observers, both his swing and his putting are flawed, a “fact” that has David Fay, the former executive director of the USGA, openly questioning his ability to overhaul Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championship victories.

“Will he get to Nicklaus’s record?” asks Fay of the now 37-year-old Woods. “I used to think he would. I don’t think so now. I don’t think it has to do with his ball striking and I don’t know if it has to do with him as a finisher. I’m one of those simple people who believe time is moving on.”

More specifically, Golf Channel pundit Brandel Chamblee is perplexed by troubling aspects of the Woods swing that were not apparent even recently.

“One of the most shocking things I have seen in the last couple of weeks is just how short Tiger’s swing has become,” said the former PGA Tour pro. “When you combine that with a little bow in his left wrist at the top of the backswing and the quick change of direction into the downswing, he is setting himself up for stress in that left wrist.”

And the putting? Former European Tour player and now Radio Five Live contributor Jay Townsend is one who sees an unprecedented change in the Woods technique. Which is odd, given that his prowess with the shortest club in his bag has been perhaps the dominant aspect of Woods’ four victories so far this year.

“Tiger has always had a little kink in his wrist at address,” contends Townsend. “This week though, that had disappeared. Now, his arms and the shaft of the club appear to be much closer to parallel. That’s actually a good thing in my opinion, but it isn’t what he usually does.”

Inevitably too, NBC commentator Johnny Miller – one of Tiger’s most vociferous critics over the years – has had something to say on the subject.

“For some reason Tiger is not making the putts like he does at regular tour events,” said the former US Open and Open champion. “Maybe that is part of being his age – he has a lot of wear and tear on the old tyres.”

All of which, one suspects, is nothing Woods hasn’t heard before. While he claims to read nothing of what is written and said about him in the media, he has always seemed strangely able to easily identify those responsible for said criticism. In press conferences, he has his wee pals in the audience, those he refers to by their first names. The wretched rest receive only the familiarly baleful glare reserved for enemies of the state named Tiger.

In other words, no matter what is actually going on inside his head or with his wrist injury, Woods remains both endlessly and outwardly defiant and competitive, aspects of his unique character that will surely be well to the fore this evening, win, lose or draw. Asked after his second round of 70 if he “liked his chances”, Woods’ one-word response was predictable and to the point: “Yes.”

He’s still the man to beat.