U.S. Open: Woods will have to conquer Olympic

Tiger Woods watches a shot on the ninth hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Monday, June 11, 2012, in San Francisco.

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SAN FRANCISCO - Only Tiger Woods can shift the narrative so dramatically in the span of four days. In late May, critics wailed that the former World No. 1 was lost, and that he should fire coach Sean Foley, and that he no longer possessed the mental fortitude to win multiple times per year, let alone a few majors.

Naturally, he then played brilliantly at Muirfield Village - his absolute red-shirted best - in capturing the Memorial on June 3 for his 73rd career PGA Tour victory. That performance sparked the usual delirium - Tiger is back! For real this time! - and provided ample buzz heading into the year’s second major.

But this sure feels familiar. In March, Woods snapped a 2 1/2-year winless drought on Tour by winning convincingly at Bay Hill. Two weeks later, however, at the major he covets most, he looked out of sorts all week at Augusta National and tied for 40th, his worst finish there as a pro. In his next two events, he went MC-40th. Cue the howling.

Asked what’s different this time, asked why his victory at the Memorial and ensuing run-up to the U.S. Open should be viewed differently, Woods replied Tuesday at Olympic Club, “I did not feel comfortable hitting the ball up (at Augusta) and I got back into a lot of my old patterns. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. But that’s what made playing Muirfield so nice, that I had those shots and I was doing it the correct way.”

This week marks the four-year anniversary of Woods’ last major victory, the ’08 Open at Torrey Pines, and if the 14-time major champion is to eventually scale Mount Nicklaus, to top Jack’s hallowed mark, well, it’d be an ideal time for Woods, 36, to at least resume the climb, no?

“I think even when I do win a major championship, it will still be, ‘You’re not to 18 yet, or when you get to 19.’ It’s always something with you guys,” Woods said. “I’ve dealt with that my entire career.”

But if Woods were to win No. 15 this week at Olympic, if he were to relaunch TigerMania 2.0, he’ll have to conquer a course that bears little resemblance to the one that last hosted the Open, in ’98. (Woods said he’s filled out a new yardage book to chart the greens.) That year Woods, in the midst of a swing change, never broke par and finished 18th.

“I was frustrated,” he said, “just like you are at most U.S. Opens.”

Will this year be different? Well, check back Thursday - Woods goes off No. 9 tee with rival Phil Mickelson and Masters champion Bubba Watson at 7:33 a.m. local time.

At this point, whatever happens - a win, a 30th, a missed cut - it wouldn’t surprise.

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