2018 U.S. Open: Why Tiger Woods will and won't contend at Shinnecock Hills

SOUTHAMPTON, NY - JUNE 12: Tiger Woods of the United States stands on the seventh tee during a practice round prior to the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 12, 2018 in Southampton, New York. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images) Warren Little/Getty Images

2018 U.S. Open: Why Tiger Woods will and won't contend at Shinnecock Hills

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2018 U.S. Open: Why Tiger Woods will and won't contend at Shinnecock Hills

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Everyone knows Chris “Mad Dog” Russo around the five boroughs, but he still had to ask while hanging around the practice green Tuesday morning at Shinnecock Hills.

“Does he know who I am?”

Tiger Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, told Russo that yes, Woods is aware of his existence and even has Sirius XM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio locked in as a preset on his car stereo.

Woods, who had just finished a practice round with Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, wandered over shortly after and flashed a big grin when LaCava introduced him to the former co-host of WFAN’s iconic “Mike and the Mad Dog” show.

Ten years after Mike and the Mad Dog went off the air, Russo still draws an audience. And, 10 years after his last major win, Woods is still the subject of so many on-air debates.

The question on everyone’s mind this week is simple. Can Tiger Woods contend at Shinnecock and make a run at a fourth U.S. Open?

Let’s take a look at the case for and against Woods playing his way into contention come Sunday.

Why Woods will contend

Iron play

Did you see Woods at the Memorial Tournament? He overcome a brutal start and began throwing darts into greens like the old days to get into contention. He squandered the opportunity with an awful putting performance, a T-23 result not close to indicative of his ballstriking throughout the week.

“Disappointed that he didn’t win, as well as he played,” caddie Joe LaCava.

Iron play will be critical into Shinnecock’s small, tricky greens, and if Woods is able to keep it in the fairway off the tee he should be able to gain ground on the field with superior approach shots. He’s fourth on Tour this season in strokes gained approach-the-green.

Manageable fairways

Shinnecock’s fairways aren’t nearly as forgiving as Erin Hills’ were last year, but they’re relatively spacious by traditional U.S. Open standards. It’s a lengthy track and Tiger will need to hit his fair share of drivers, the exact number of which will vary daily based on wind direction.

Woods is 182nd on Tour in driving accuracy percentage, hitting the fairway at a 54.66 percent clip. He was much better at the Players Championship and Memorial Tournament in that regard, but he’ll still take all the short grass he can get.

“(The course) seems to suit his eye,” LaCava said. “He likes it. He’s had enough rounds out here where he’s comfortable.”

Grind mode

Jack Nicklaus once said that basically a lot of players are eliminated the second the U.S. Open flag is raised. It takes a different kind of mentality to survive the 72-hole grind, one rooted in patience and determination.

Woods’ ability to grind out a number no matter the conditions is even more impressive now, given all he’s been through. He’s played tough courses exclusively this season and still checks in at 16th on Tour with a 70.035 scoring average.

He started Round 1 of the Memorial 4 over through 7 and finished with an even-par 72. Staying locked in regardless of circumstance is the reason Woods was able to make a record 142 consecutive cuts, and it’s another reason to like his chances this week.

“Even if he shot four over the first day, he’s gonna grind like hell the second day to make the cut,” LaCava said. “He’s the ultimate grinder. That’s never gonna be a problem.”

Why Woods won’t contend

Putting problems

While Woods’ tee-to-green game has been trending up in recent months, the putting is suddenly an issue. It was bad at Quail Hollow and even worse at the Memorial, weeks in which he stuck the ball consistently better than he has all season.

He was 14th in strokes gained putting after a T-5 finish at Bay Hill and has since fallen to T-89. His touch and feel have been off around the greens, save for a stellar weekend at TPC Sawgrass, and he’ll need to get it back on Shinnecock’s slippery surfaces to do something special this week.

Rough go

As previously mentioned, the fairways aren’t terribly skinny around this place. Thick rough is the problem. The scrambling par is a Woods trademark and one of his greatest strengths, but he won’t be able to depend on it at this venue.

Keeping it in play is the biggest priority for Woods this week. If he gets a little loose off the tee, we could see some big numbers on the card in a hurry.

“Pretty generous off the tee, but if you do miss the fairway you’ve got issues,” LaCava said.

Shaking off the rust

It took Woods a while to get back into a tournament routine, one he now seems comfortable with. But the majors are a different story. Woods played a ton leading up to the Masters and seemed exhausted by the end of the week.

His pre-U.S. Open tournament schedule hasn’t been quite as taxing, but he’s surely been pushing himself behind the scenes.

Woods has proved he’s capable of winning tournaments again, without a doubt. Once he gets into contention come Sunday, he knows what to do. Getting there is the hard part, and it might be that Woods needs two or three post-fusion majors under his belt before he’s again comfortable with the routine leading up and the process going in.

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