Can Tiger repeat at Bethpage?

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So long and so dark, the shadow he casts has the potential to stretch substantially with the upcoming U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.

Then again, hasn’t that been the enduring storyline throughout Tiger Woods’ career?

Having already authored a series of golf’s greatest accomplishments, Woods can take ownership of more history with another major triumph. Not only would he become just the seventh player to successfully defend the U.S. Open – and the first since Curtis Strange 20 years ago – but if he were to prevail at Bethpage, Woods would lay claim to something that no other golfer has done.

He would have back-to-back victories in each of the four majors.

Of course, he’s the only one to successfully defend three (Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones did so in two), so in one respect, Woods’ only competition inside the record books is himself.

That is the landscape he has shaped, and though it has provided a legacy with great depth – plus a fortune for six lifetimes – what fuels his mission are challenges. Winning the career Grand Slam? Check. Four consecutive majors? Check. Largest winning margins in the U.S. Open and Masters? Check and check. More majors than anyone not named Jack Nicklaus? Check.

Now, throw into that mix his bid to win a second consecutive U.S. Open, arguably the stiffest hurdle he has faced.

“The reason I’d say it is,” Strange said, “is the golf course you have for a U.S. Open. It’s just very difficult. You tend not to know it that well, and any weakness in your game is magnified at the U.S. Open. Forget it if you’re not firing on all cylinders.”

But against all those odds, Strange pauses and suggests, “there’s a distinct possibility he could do it this year.”

Because it’s Bethpage, where Woods won in 2002? That’s one part of the equation. “It’s a long, hard, big golf course, and it eliminates a lot of people on the first tee,” Strange said.

But beyond that, Strange points to the Woods aura, which thrives, even with roller-coaster rides this year at the Masters, Quail Hollow, and Players Championship.

“Lee Trevino said God didn’t give every golfer everything,” Strange said. “But it certainly looks like he did with Tiger.”

• • •

When he backed up his U.S. Open triumph at The Country Club in 1988 with a victory the next summer at Oak Hill, Strange told reporters, “Move over, Ben.”

He was referring to the incomparable Ben Hogan, who had been the last man to successfully defend a U.S. Open title, in 1951.

Twenty years have passed and though the pride hasn’t diminished one bit, Strange offers perspective.

“That’s the only time you’ll ever hear my name and Hogan’s name in the same sentence,” he said. “I mean, I was in the right place at the right time.”

Maybe, but the reality is, Strange did something that only Hogan, Jones, Willie Anderson, John McDermott and Ralph Guldahl had done, and no one has done since.

“It’s not so much what I did,” Strange said, “and I truly believe this, but it’s more that I did something that Nicklaus didn’t do. Palmer didn’t do it. Watson didn’t do it. Trevino didn’t do it. I guess I was luckier than them.”

Certainly, Nicklaus never fared exceedingly well as a U.S. Open defender. The only cut he missed in his first 23 tries as a pro came in 1963 (at The Country Club) – as defending champ. In three subsequent chances to defend the title, Nicklaus finished second, four behind Trevino in 1968; tied for fourth in 1973; and joint sixth in 1981.

Woods twice has failed to successfully defend his U.S. Open title, but that can be rationalized thusly: Southern Hills in 2001 and Olympia Fields in 2003 both brought a lot of players into the mix.

No such worries at Bethpage, which comes at you with enormous real estate (7,445 yards) and provides great vibes for Woods, given his three-stroke triumph over Phil Mickelson seven summers ago.

Advantage, Woods? He says no.

“I don’t know how much (the course) has changed,” Woods said. “I don’t know how much they have lengthened it, whether they have done anything to the greens or if my (yardage) book from 2002 is even good.”

Though he considers the world’s No. 1 player the favorite, Strange concedes “even Tiger Woods has to be sharp” if he hopes to defend and, just as important, “he’ll need good fortune.”

Strange said it was on his side in 1989, most notably in the second round at Oak Hill when he holed a 115-yard wedge for an eagle-3 at the fourth. It helped soften the pain of a first-round 71 that had left him tied for 35th; instead, Strange assumed the lead with his second-round 64.

There hadn’t been an awful lot of media hype about going back-to-back, but it picked up when Strange went in front of Tom Kite by one. Strange then went without a birdie in a third-round 73 and fell three behind Kite, who shot 69.

If the hype died, the pressure didn’t, and Strange arrived Sunday in a better frame of mind. He ran off par after par and watched things unfold favorably. Kite drove it into the water at the short fifth, then three-putted from 10 feet for a triple-bogey 7. Scott Simpson, paired with Kite, stumbled, too, so when Strange made par at the 10th, he was back in the lead.

When at the par-4 16th Strange halted a stretch of 35 holes without a birdie, he was leading by two. A short time later, he was telling reporters, “Look out, Willie Anderson.”

It was in reference to the only man to post three consecutive victories in the U.S. Open. Though Strange concedes “I learned more about Willie Anderson than I ever dreamed of,” he brushes off a suggestion that he nearly matched it.

OK, so he was only two back through 54 holes at Medinah in 1990. You know that saying about “horseshoes and hand grenades,” Strange said. In other words, close three-quarters through means nothing; he closed with 75 and faded to T-21.

He failed to match Anderson’s effort, but Strange will always have his back-to-back, and no one knows more than he how much effort that took. He never won on Tour again after Oak Hill.

He was 34 when he won at Oak Hill, but Strange doesn’t see any sort of similar fate for Woods, 33. Nor is there a concern that Woods will pull a repeat of Guldahl, who soon after winning his second consecutive U.S. Open, in 1938, disappeared from competition and said: “I never did have a tremendous desire to win.”

Consider Woods the polar opposite.

“He’s a unique individual, much less a golfer,” Strange said. “He’s very intelligent, very aware, has great athleticism, confidence – all of the above. He knows so much better than everyone else, and he knows he should win.”

But will he?

History is working against Woods. Then again, it was working against Strange, too.

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