All eyes on Woods at U.S. Open

Defending champion shooting for third title in four years

Tiger Woods gestures as he watches a shot on the 13th hole of the 2002 U.S. Open. Starting Thursday at Olympia Fields, Woods will try to win his third U.S. Open in four years, something only two other players in history have accomplished.

? The U.S. Open was supposed to be the one major championship that gave Tiger Woods fits.

He didn’t drive the ball straight enough.

He couldn’t handle the rough.

He played too aggressively, turning attempts at birdie into bogey or worse.

Sure, Woods manhandled Augusta National to win by a record 12 strokes in 1997. But he chopped it around Congressional that summer and at Olympic Club the following year, both times finishing 10 strokes out of the lead.

Just look at him now.

Woods not only is the defending champion in the 103rd U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, he is on the verge of becoming one of the most dominant players in golf’s toughest test.

A victory on the 80-year-old course south of Chicago would be his third U.S. Open title in four years and put him in elite company. Only Ben Hogan and Willie Anderson won the national open so many times in such a short span.

“I think it’s everyone’s hardest test,” Woods said. “You have to drive the ball well there. You have to hit your irons well, and you have to make a lot of 8-footers for par. It’s the most physical and mental test we play. There’s so much stress on every shot.”

Hogan is defined by the U.S. Open. He won in 1950 after a near-fatal car accident, repeated in 1951 and won his fourth title in 1953. Anderson also won four U.S. Opens, and he is the only player to win three in a row (1903-05).

Clearly, Woods is capable on any course, at any tournament.

He already is the youngest of five players to have won the career Grand Slam — scoring records at all four of the majors, no less — and he is the only player to win four professional majors in a row.

His mystique often is linked to Augusta National, where he has won three green jackets.

But when his swing is pure and the putts are falling, is Woods tougher to beat at the Masters or the U.S. Open?

“Probably the U.S. Open,” Woods replied. “If you’re hitting the ball well, you can really separate yourself.”

He proved that in both his U.S. Open victories.

Pebble Beach in 2000 was the most mesmerizing performance in golf history. Woods shot par or better all four days, became the first player to finish in double digits under par, and won by 15 shots, the most in major-championship history.

Last year at Bethpage Black, he made two meaningless bogeys on the final three holes and still won by three shots. That made Woods the only player twice to win the U.S. Open wire to wire.

So why all the worry five years ago?

Woods was wild off the tee and never knew how far he was hitting his irons. That’s why he overhauled his swing, a process that took 18 months and paid huge dividends.

“I was trying to play the correct shot, but I couldn’t play it at the time,” Woods said of his early U.S. Opens. “My mental approach hasn’t changed. It wasn’t that I was too aggressive. I just couldn’t play the shot. That’s why I changed my swing, to be more consistent.”

The reasons vary why Woods excels at golf’s most demanding major.

Asked which was a more daunting task — trying to catch Woods at Augusta National or at the U.S. Open — and Padraig Harrington didn’t hesitate.

“I go straight to the U.S. Open,” Harrington said. “Tiger’s biggest advantage now in the game is his irons. He’s hitting slightly less club. He hits them so high, and he makes such good contact. All three things add up in his favor because of the firm greens. He has a big advantage when the golf course is tough.”

Nobody has won more Masters (6) or U.S. Opens (4) than Jack Nicklaus, the man whose records Woods is trying to break.

Nicklaus was quick to say Woods had a bigger advantage at the Masters than the U.S. Open, but then the Golden Bear paused to reconsider.

“They’re both about the same,” he said. “I think it was harder for them to beat me at Augusta than the U.S. Open because a lot of guys chipped better than I did out of the high stuff. Tiger has got such a marvelous short game, much better than I ever dreamed of having. The U.S. Open … it’s hard to beat Tiger. He hits so many good shots.”

The U.S. Open is all about getting the ball in the fairway off the tee, being able to muscle the ball out of the thick rough, salvaging par and accepting the bogeys.

Above all, it is a test of patience and endurance, another reason Woods has seemed to separate himself.

“It’s about strength at the U.S. Open — physical strength and mental strength,” Mark O’Meara said. “He’s probably the strongest mentally of anyone on tour. He’s very similar to Jack Nicklaus.”

None of that means anything if Woods doesn’t get the ball in play.

While he is the favorite at the U.S. Open, just as he is at every major, he comes to Olympia Fields having played only twice since the Masters.

He already has won three times this year, but not since the Bay Hill Invitational in February.