PEBBLE BEACH (California): Ten years on, Tiger Woods’ majestic US Open victory at Pebble Beach still sparks awe.
It launched the run of major success that made Woods the first golfer to hold all four major titles at once.
But the aura of invincibility the victory helped create has faded, and Woods arrives at Pebble Beach Golf Links looking decidedly mortal, still seeking to get his game in shape after a lengthy break in the aftermath of a sex scandal.
“As far as my game, I’m very excited,” said Woods, who has played only four tournaments this year and played four rounds in just two.
He said he saw progress during the Memorial tournament earlier this month as well as on the course here this week.
“The more time I’ve been able to practice and play, it has started to solidify and I’m actually really excited to tee it up on Thursday.”
Pebble Beach, which will play this week at par-71, 7,040-yards, has hosted just four US Opens, producing an impressive quartet of champions – Jack Nicklaus in 1972, Tom Watson in 1982, Tom Kite in 1992 and Woods in 2000.
Nicklaus, Watson and Kite all produced some memorable major moments, but Woods produced four days of golf that Phil Mickelson called “the best ball-striking and putting tournament that has ever been performed.”
Mickelson has no shortage of goals to shoot for this week.
The Masters champion is the only golfer with a shot at claiming the second leg of the grand slam, but to do so he must win a first US Open title after an agonizing five runner-up finishes.
To end the heartbreak at Pebble Beach would be especially sweet for the Californian, whose 40th birthday falls on the eve of the tournament. But it won’t be easy.
“This course can really bite you,” said Mickelson, who can also overtake Woods atop the world rankings here. “It was a difficult test. It was very difficult in ’92, as it was in 2000, although one player in 2000 made it look easy. I think it’s going to be very hard this week as well.”
Mickelson likes the changes that have been made to the course since 2000, which range from new tee boxes to add length to some holes to shifting fairways closer to the Pacific coast bluffs to bring the ocean more into play.
“I buy into the philosphy of making the hard holes harder and the easy holes easier,” Mickelson said. “I want to see birdies and I want to see bogeys and I want to be challenged on the hard holes and have an opportunity to get a shot back on the easy ones.”
As always, the course will be set up to provide what the US Golf Association judges is the most demanding test in golf, not only of golf skills but of mental toughness.
“Well generally it’s the highest rough we play all year, it’s the narrowest fairways, the hardest greens the trickiest pins,” Woods said. “Other than that, yeah, it’s pretty simple.”
Ernie Els, who was second behind Woods in 2000 with a three-over total to Woods’ 12-under, will play with Woods and Lee Westwood in the first two rounds.
“The greens are going to be very tricky,” said Els, a two-time US Open champion. “There’s a huge difference from the morning to late afternoon … when you hit the brown patches the ball really doesn’t stop on the green. But it’s a great golf course.”
Els won’t be expecting a 12-under total or a 15-shot victory this year.
“Tiger, he was out of this world that week,” the South African said. “If the weather is half-decent, I think someone can shoot under par. And if we have very bad weather, over par will win.”
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington said he believes any sports record can be broken, even Woods’ 12-under US Open record.
“Do I think it’s going to be broken this week? No,” Harrington said.
With Woods absent or struggling this year, plenty of golfers have stepped up to fill the void.
Veterans Els and Jim Furyk have both won twice on the US PGA Tour. England’s Lee Westwood was runner-up to Mickelson at the Masters, has top-three finishes in his last three majors and boosted his confidence on Sunday with a US tour win in Memphis.
“There’s a lot of guys that are playing well,” said Woods, who also singled out rising stars Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Ryo Ishikawa of Japan.
Woods said that for him this week the challenge, as always, is simply to win.
“Whether you win by one or 15 doesn’t matter,” he said. “As long as I’m going home with the trophy.