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9:15AM

SF Examiner: Tiger anxious for first major win since surgery

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

TURNBERRY, SCOTLAND — And now into the land of Robert the Bruce, where castles stand and time seems endless, steps Woods the Tiger. Aye laddie, the British Open returns to Scotland, and Woods, after a missing year, returns to the Open.

“Haste ye back,” says the sign along A77 as it curves out of Kirkoswald toward the Firth of Forth and the links of Turnberry. Tiger is back. And naturally the heavy betting favorite, 7-to-4 at Ladbroke’s the bookmaker.

Every Open Championship, as it’s called here, offers a unique glance at an event which is as much about history as it is competition. Over the hill in Ayr is the actual Brig O’Doon, or bridge over the Doon River. Close by is the home of Bobby Burns, the poet hero who created Auld Lang Syne told us the best laid plans “o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.”

Tiger’s plan for this 138th Open, of course, is to finish first, to follow in the wake of Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Nick Price who won the three previous Opens at Turnberry.

“They were some of the best ball-strikers,” Woods reminded. “At this golf course you can understand why. You really have to hit the ball well here ... you just can’t fake it around this golf course.”

Nor on any links, which is where the Open always is played. Those are the courses on the rolling, sandy soil once under the sea, where the bunkers are huge, the fairways firm, and the advantage is in hitting the ball low, not high.

Those are courses such as Royal Birkdale, where Padraig Harrington won last year, and Carnoustie, where Harrington won in 2007, and Royal Liverpool, where in 2006 Tiger took his third Open.

There are no true linksland venues in the United States — Pebble Beach Golf Links is one in name only, not style — and not until they cross the sea do Americans get the opportunity to play them.

“I fell in love with it right away,” Woods said of links golf. “I fell in love with being [able] to use the ground as a friend, an ally. We don’t get to do that in the United States; everything is up in the air.”

Nor in the U.S. do they compete on a course built where, in 1274, Robert the Bruce was born. He would become King of Scotland and fight the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. Now a lighthouse, Turnberry’s symbol stands at Robert the Bruce’s alleged birth site.

The virtual king of golf is Tiger. But since the knee surgery which prevented him from playing in the ’08 Open, Woods has not won a major. He has three victories since returning five months ago but he couldn’t get to the top in either the Masters or U.S. Open, tying for sixth in both.

“To sit here and say I was going to have three wins halfway through the year probably would have been reaching a little bit,” Woods said. “Granted I haven’t won a major, but I’ve come close. I’ve done it before, and hopefully I’ll do it again.”

The oddsmakers believe he’ll do it this Open. They are not alone.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on artspander.com and realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company
3:20PM

Tiger and elements at the start of British Open week

TURNBERRY, Scotland –- A light rain had stopped, leaving only gloom and silence. The Open is coming, and the stage must be set. This is a golf resort, Turnberry, not a beach resort. The elements must come into play.

There is a myth about golf in this country where the game was created. “Nae wind, nae rain, nae golf,’’ is the axiom. But here they’ll tell you that’s a slogan more Madison Avenue than Glasgow High Street. The folks would prefer sunshine. They don’t usually have it.

When we think of the British Open, we think not only of links courses, those bold, rolling venues once under the sea, but of difficult weather -- as if any weather could be more difficult than that of our own Open, three weeks past at Bethpage, where the rain never stopped.

The famous Duel in the Sun, between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in 1977, was at Turnberry, on Scotland’s West Coast, along the Firth of Clyde, Watson winning after shooting 65-65 the last two days against Jack’s 65-66. There wasn’t a cashmere sweater within sight. Not many bogies to be seen, either.

But when in 1986 the Open returned to Turnberry, the weather the first day -- 25 mph winds, a steady downpour -- was particularly nasty. Only one player, Ian Woosnam, was as low as even par, or as the phrasing goes here, level par.

Turnberry is not a town but a Victorian hotel, constructed in 1906 above courses opened in 1901 and twice turned into Royal Air Force bases, for World War I and World War II. Even now, after the restoration, after three previous Opens, cement from the old airplane runways still is visible.

Also visible Sunday, in a manner of speaking, was Tiger Woods, who played a practice round on Turnberry’s Ailsa Course, which until two weeks ago had been closed for changes and, if you think harder is better, improvement.

It was Tiger’s introduction to Turnberry, where the men who won the three Opens here, Watson in ’77, Greg Norman in ’86 and Nick Price in ’94, all are living members of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Not that Tiger can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he must have some magic. By the time he was into his back nine, the clouds rolled by and the sun appeared.

“We got the best of the weather today,’’ said Woods. “No wind. The course is in great shape.’’

Presumably so was Tiger, although he had arrived at Prestwick Airport, about 20 miles north, after an overnight flight, picked up a yardage  booklet in the pro shop -- as we might if we could afford the $375 greens fee -- went straight to the first tee, skipping the driving range, and fired away.

Peter Dawson, chairman of the Royal and Ancient, which runs the Open, caught up with Woods, first on foot, then after leaping into a golf cart, on wheels. Can’t let the prize entrant feel unwanted.

There is a small building, a halfway house, with a restroom between the ninth and 10th holes, but when Tiger tried the door he found it locked. A marshal quickly obtained a key. “My teeth were swimming in my head,’’ a grateful Tiger told the man.

That Woods never had played Turnberry until Sunday is of no particular consequence. Experience is advisory on links courses but hardly mandatory. Tiger never had seen Royal Liverpool until Open week in 2006. Of course he won. Tom Watson took his first shot at Carnoustie in 1975 the week of the tournament and won. And then there was the late Tony Lema of the Bay Area, San Leandro, in 1964.

Lema’s manager, the famed Fred Corcoran, told Tony to get in some practice rounds since he’d never seen a links course before. “Just let me tee it up,’’ was Lema’s response. “I don’t build courses, I play ’em.’’

He played historic St. Andrews better than Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, better than anyone, winning virtually sight unseen. When a British writer wondered of Tony, “How did you find the course?’’ his flip California answer was, “I just walked out of the clubhouse and there it was.’’

Whenever Tiger walks out of a clubhouse, he’s inevitably the favorite. Seven different bookmaking agencies in Britain, where betting is legal, all list Tiger as the choice, the odds varying slightly from 7-to-4 at Ladbroke’s to 9-to-4 at Paddypower. For what it’s worth, Sergio Garcia is next at 20-to-1.

Woods reportedly hit his tee shot into the rough on Turnberry’s second and never looked for the ball. The rough is long.

“They had a medal (stroke play event) for the members –- 150 starters -– and they left 480 balls on the course,’’ said Colin Montgomerie, who has a golf academy here.  “That’s three a player. Avoid the rough at all costs.’’

Easy to say but, as even Tiger learned, hard to do.
9:48PM

RealClearSports: For Tiger, the Hardest Major of the Year

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- He liked his chances, as did the rest of us, a following that included the man he someday should supplant as the game's standard.

"I suspect,'' Jack Nicklaus had mused, alluding to Tiger Woods' 14 major championships, "that No. 15 will come in two weeks.''

Jack was speaking after Tiger won Nicklaus' own tournament, the Memorial. After Tiger never missed a fairway the last round. After Tiger seemingly verified he was ready to take this calamitous U.S. Open at Bethpage.

And even Tiger, properly favoring himself, told us, "I like my chances in any major.''

Yet as the 109th Open, a tournament with more suspensions than suspense, slogged through to a merciless conclusion at the course nicknamed "Wetpage,'' Tiger's chances were gone.

With the Open spilling over into Monday, it wasn't clear who would win: maybe Ricky Barnes, whose huge lead of Sunday afternoon had disappeared; maybe Lucas Glover, who had come from six shots back to tie Barnes; maybe even David Duval.

It was clear who wouldn't win, Tiger Woods.

Once again, a year after taking the championship, he took a figurative punch to the jaw. He couldn't repeat in 2001 or 2003. He couldn't repeat in 2009.

Even though we thought he would. Even though he thought he could, if with a caveat.

Not for 20 years has anyone won Opens back-to-back.

Not Nicklaus, not Payne Stewart, Lee Janzen or Andy North, although along with Tiger and Jack they did win more than one Open.

Since Ben Hogan, in 1950-51, a stretch of 58 years, only Curtis Strange in 1988-89 has taken Opens consecutively, an achievement he not so humbly embellished with the pronouncement, "Move over, Ben.''

Tiger was in the wrong place, the early starting wave on Thursday, at the wrong time, when the first of several storms powered in and, with Woods and playing partners Padraig Harrington on the seventh green, halted play until Friday.

The golfers who didn't get on course until the second day and then got in most of two rounds were those who got the good break.

Rub of the green, it's called in golf. And the green rubbed Woods very much the wrong way.

He got shafted by Mother Nature. Then he got in trouble. When Tiger returned on Friday, he was even par with four holes to play. And four-over par after those four holes. Balls dropped into the rough. Putts slid by the cup.

It was a precursor. And a reminder.

"This is the hardest major we face,'' said Woods, "year in, year out. Narrowest fairways, highest rough. You have to have every facet of your game going.''

Nicklaus played more than 40 Opens. He won four. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson won one apiece. Greg Norman never won any. The hardest major they face.

Heading into the final round, Tiger was at 1-over par 211 for 54 holes. Nine shots behind Ricky Barnes. Tiger's game wasn't going anywhere, although by the time play stopped, Woods having completed seven holes of the last round, he was even par. And seven shots back of Barnes and Glover.

"All week,'' said Woods on Sunday, "I hit it better than my scoring indicates. My finish the first day put me so far back, I had to try and make up shots the entire time. I finished that day playing poorly.''

No one finished anything Sunday, when play was called because of darkness. This is the pain of sport. This is the wonder of sport. We never know.

Rafael Nadal didn't win the French Open, even though we believed he would. Tiger Woods won't win the U.S. Open, even though we believed he would. You've heard it so many times, and you'll hear it again: That's why they play the game.

There's something reassuring in all this, not that Tiger was unable to meet expectations, but that sitting around and forecasting winners doesn't mean a great deal. The people on the courses and courts and diamonds are the ones who have the real say.

Tiger and Phil Mickelson and Ricky Barnes come back next week, and the probability is that everything is different. But they're not coming back. They had their chances. Barnes was making the best of his. Tiger couldn't do the same.

When after the third round somebody, dreaming, asked in effect if Tiger could overtake the leaders.

"Bethpage,'' said Woods who won here in 2002, "is one of those courses where you have to play a great round and get some help.''

Throughout this Open, Tiger had neither.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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http://www1.realclearsports.com/articles/2009/06/21/for_tiger_the_hardest_major_of_the_year_96403.html
© RealClearSports 2009
12:11PM

Tiger botches up a good round

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- The day was less than enthralling. Tiger Woods made a mess of things. Not as much of a mess as one of his playing partners, Padraig Harrington, but that might not be a good way of measuring a bad round.

There he was Friday morning, Tiger even par with four holes remaining. Even par in the U.S. Open, a tournament where par makes you a contender and sometimes makes you a champion.

That’s the sort of competition Tiger likes, where every shot is precious, and you have to work and grind and struggle -- and think.

But what Tiger was thinking when he finished on Friday what he started on Thursday probably was X-rated stuff. He played the final four holes double-bogey, bogey, par and bogey, coming in with a 4-over 74.

Harrington, with three doubles, shot 76, while the third member of the group, Angel Cabrera, like the other two players a multiple major champion, had 74.

It was only late morning and, because of a schedule revised by the rain, Tiger was done for the day.

“As of the way I feel now, no, I don’t want to go back out there right now,’’ Tiger said when some wondered if at the early hour, before 11 a.m. EDT, he wished he could get to a second round already shoved to Saturday.

“Probably would be a few clubs light,’’ he added, the implication being that Woods might have busted a couple of them in anger.

Done for the day, but hardly for the tournament. Even 10 shots behind.

What we’ve learned is you never quit on Tiger Woods because he never quits on himself. Remember when he overcame that seven-shot deficit on the back nine at Pebble Beach in the 2000 AT&T, catching a bewildered Matt Gogel? Remember when he was three down with five to play the first round of the 2008 Accenture match play and beat J.B. Holmes, 1 up?

So to declare Tiger Woods finished after he played only 18 holes in a major championship that, because of the weather forecast, might never finish is premature at best and presumptive at worst.

And yet there he was, back to even par in the 109th U.S. Open at Bethpage’s Black Course after a birdie on 15. There he was, a gallery of rowdy New Yorkers shouting their encouragement.

And then, whoops, there he was, losing four shots the last four holes.

“Well,’’ he said, “I wasn’t playing poorly. You know, that’s the thing. I was even par with four to go, and I was right there where I needed to be, and then two bad shots and a mud ball later, I’m four-over par.’’

Already there had been a double-bogey, but that was Thursday, in the deluge, before play mercifully was halted with Woods, Harrington and Cabrera on the seventh green. Tiger bogeyed seven when play resumed under clear skies at 7:40 Friday morning, but birdies at 11 and 14 had brought him back to even.

“That was kind of a goal,’’ Woods explained. The goal evaporated.

He hit a bad tee shot on the 459-yard 15th, described by one and all as the most difficult hole on the course. “But I had a great lie and went for it. Plugged it in the face, took a drop (a free one, because the ball was ruled as embedded), hit a decent pitch -- but I didn’t think it would come all the way back to my feet like that -- blocked the first putt and hit a bad second putt.’’

Woods is defending champion. He is trying to become the first repeat winner in 20 years, since Curtis Strange in 1988-89. Woods is the favorite. But after the first round, Woods is a good distance behind. Then again...

More rain is coming. More pressure will be building. More double-bogeys will be recorded.

Nothing is certain. The USGA, which announced Thursday it wouldn’t honor Thursday’s tickets, even though play was halted and didn’t resume, on Friday said it would allow those tickets to be used Monday. If there is play Monday. And it appears there will be play Monday. And maybe Tuesday.

“Overall,’’ said Woods, “the golf course is playing difficult. I’m just going to continue to do what I’m doing and hopefully clean up the round a little bit, drive the ball in the fairway and get a couple of breaks and not catch a mud ball. But if it dries out more, it will get worse.’’

Presumably Tiger Woods will get better. Presumably he won’t ruin a decent round by losing four shots to par in four holes.

He’s not giving up, not after one round of a major. He made a mess of things. He had two awful holes. Fifty hour holes remain. That’s more than enough for atonement. And victory.
9:59PM

SF Examiner: It's Tiger's U.S. Open to lose



By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner


FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Kobe one week, Tiger the next. From a large leather ball to a small dimpled one. From a hardwood court to soft fairways. From one champion to another.

The NBA playoffs, Kobe Bryant’s showcase, are done. The U.S. Open, Tiger Woods’ stage, is here, starting Thursday. What we got from Kobe — excellence, success — we’re expecting to get from Tiger.

“I like my chances in any major,” Tiger said Tuesday. We all like his chances.

The national championship, that’s what the Open is for golfers, a test of skill and will, an event of thick rough and high pressure where brains count no less than brawn.

“I just enjoy having to think your way around a golf course,” Tiger said.

This is the damp greenness of Long Island, 30 miles from Manhattan. This is where the Open went public for the first time when the 2002 Open was held at a muni, if you can call Bethpage Black a muni when it has a sign warning it is “An extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”

This is where Tiger, or as crowds here pronounce it, “Ti-guh,” won and very likely could win again.

Some asked him, “In your opinion, who do you think at this point is the best golfer of all-time and why?”

“Jack,” responded Woods. He didn’t feel obligated to add, “Nicklaus.”

And Tiger? “He’s got 18. I’m at 14.”

Meaning major pro championships. Kobe is at four, meaning NBA championships, and Tiger, the Lakers fan, who grew up in Southern California, identifies with Bryant.

“His work ethic is phenomenal,” Tiger said of Kobe, as certainly Kobe could have said about Tiger.

“The hours he puts in, from just shooting on his own,” Woods pointed out, “to all the film study. Look at how he guides his team.

“That’s steady. That’s knowing the offenses, the defense you’re going against, basically all the chess pieces.”

That’s preparation, something of which Tiger prides himself.

Woods could become the first person ever with 10 U.S. Golf Association championships. He has three junior amateurs, three amateurs and three Opens, a total of nine.

Woods also could become the first to win back-to-back Opens in 20 years, since Curtis Strange in 1988-89 and the second in 70 years, Ben Hogan finishing first in 1950-51.

“Generally,” Tiger said of why the repeat is so rare, “this is the hardest major we face all year.”

Tiger took the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, also a muni, on a left knee so painful he winced after every shot. Surgery on the anterior-cruciate ligament a few days later kept him out of the game eight months and there were struggles after his return in February.

But he won the Memorial, Jack’s tournament, a week and a half ago, hitting every fairway from the tee in the final round, and Nicklaus not-so-boldly predicted Woods would win this Open.

Next year, the Open returns to Pebble Beach. In 2012, it’s at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Every Open is different. Every Open is the same.

“You’ve got to grind it out and make pars,” Tiger said. “How you do is up to you.”

Tiger will find a way. As in another sport, Kobe found a way.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company