MAMARONECK, N.Y. — It has been 20 years since Tiger Woods won his first United States Open by 15 strokes, which remains the largest margin of victory in the event. Two years later, golf’s leaders sought a new populism embodied by Woods, who learned the game on a municipal golf course. For the first time, America’s golf championship was contested at a public-owned facility, Bethpage Black in a New York state park. Woods won again.
It has been 12 years since Woods last won the U.S. Open, in 2008, although that year he needed a 19-hole playoff to defeat Rocco Mediate, a 45-year-old with a creaky back.
Let’s pause a second to note the irony as Woods, with a back that has been surgically repaired four times, enters his 22nd U.S. Open this week as he awaits his 45th birthday in December.
There’s a lot of golf history in Woods’s previous appearances at the event, something he did not dismiss when meeting with reporters Tuesday at Winged Foot Golf Club, where the championship begins Thursday. The memories, good and bad, flashed through the decades. And yet, the most amusing, and telling, Tiger-related reminiscence came from the defending U.S. Open champion, Gary Woodland, who recently appeared at an outing with Woods.
Woods was wearing his green jacket commemorating his 2019 Masters victory. Woodland brought the trophy that goes with a U.S. Open victory.
“I had the trophy with me and was giving him a hard time that his name was only on there twice,” Woodland said Tuesday.
Woods did not see the humor.
“It’s three times,” he corrected in a millisecond.
It has been a tough year for Woods, and not just because even his friends, like Woodland, sometimes fail to remember the finer details of his greatness. His ailing back, almost miraculously stable and supple during his mesmerizing 2019 Masters victory, has been an intractable hindrance in the worst of times and an unpredictable wild card in the best of times — or a combination of both.
At the Memorial Tournament in July, with his back feeling fluid, Woods shot a one-under-par 71 in the first round. The next day, he winced and limped to a four-over-par 76 when sudden back stiffness made a full swing impossible. Afterward, an unruffled Woods did not seem surprised — or perturbed.
“So you never know exactly what you’re going to have each day?” I asked him.
He smiled and replied: “It’s going to happen more times than not.”
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Woods has played six times this year (not counting the charity exhibition match with Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning) and his best finish was a tie for ninth in late January. In the six months since that result, the best he has done is tie for 37th, with four finishes outside the top 50.
At tournaments, Woods’s disposition, which could run the gamut in his prime, is now almost always measured and cooperative. On Tuesday, he did not break form when asked to summarize his season so far. He sounded like a golfer of any stripe after a spate of poor play: He missed putts, made some swing mistakes and put the ball in the wrong spots.
“I’ve compounded mistakes,” he said.
As one of the few golfers in the vast field who participated in the last U.S. Open held at Winged Foot, in 2006, Woods was asked what advice he could give his colleagues as they try to tackle a golf course renowned for its fearsome challenge. There wasn’t too much he could say since he missed the cut that year, the first time he had done so at a major championship.
But there was another piece to his 2006 U.S. Open story.
About a month after he tied for third at the 2006 Masters and failed to win the tournament for the fourth time, his father, Earl Woods, died. Woods did not play again until that year’s next major, at Winged Foot in June.
“Yeah, 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 Tuesday.
Looking ahead to that year’s U.S. Open, Woods said: “Frankly, when I got ready for this event, I didn’t really put in the time. I didn’t really put in the practice.” He was not prepared to play, but added: “After that, I probably did some pretty good grieving.”
A month later, he won the British Open and six more times that year, including the 2006 P.G.A. Championship.
In the chill of Tuesday morning, Woods played a practice round with a 22-year-old amateur, John Augenstein, who was not alive when Woods first played in the U.S. Open. The third member of the group was Justin Thomas, 27, who grew up idolizing Woods, even if he was only two years old when Tiger struck his first shot in a U.S. Open.
Thursday, Thomas and Woods will be paired in the first round. It will nonetheless be a first for Woods.
But looking ahead to Thursday, Thomas, the world’s third-ranked golfer, said he will recognize a bit of history when he sees it.
“I’ll know that’s the fewest amount of people he’s played in front of since he was about four,” Thomas said.