Woods eyes contention while relishing U.S. Open return

When the U.S. Open came around in 2017, Tiger Woods was watching at home, texting some of his former competitors, unsure if he would ever face golf’s toughest test again.

Woods was less than two months removed from his fourth back surgery — to address sciatica and severe back and leg pain — and hadn’t competed at the U.S. Open since 2015, when he missed the cut by 11 strokes.

“I was just given the OK to start walking again, start moving around, and this was, what, June,” Woods told reporters Tuesday. “So I hadn’t been cleared to start lifting yet.

“And so it was about just having my standard of life. Forget golf. Can I actually participate in my kids’ lives again? That’s something that I had missed for a few years, and that was the main goal of it.”

Woods’ reflection on his recovery came during his press conference at Shinnecock Hills, N.Y., two days before he will make his return to the U.S. Open. It will be his 10th event of the year and the first time he has played in each of the season’s first two majors in three years.

“To go from there to where I’m at now, I had no expectation of getting this far,” Woods continued. “A lot of this is pure bonus because of where I was. To be able to have this opportunity to play USGA events, to play against these guys, best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one that I don’t take for granted.”

Woods’ return to the PGA Tour has been far from ceremonial, as he has worked his way up to 80th in the world after beginning the year at No. 656.

He authored back-to-back top-five finishes in March, including a tie for second at the Valspar Championship. He also shot 10 under over the final two days of The Players Championship to tie for 11th, and was tied for seventh entering the final round of the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago before settling for 23rd. Victory remains elusive, but he has repeatedly threatened.

When asked if he’s surprised he hasn’t won a tournament yet given how many times he’s been in contention, Woods paused, and then said, “Probably.”

“There’s two ways of looking at that,” he said. “I’ve given myself chances to win, which I didn’t know if I was ever going to do again, and, also, then again, not happy with the fact that I didn’t win because I loved how it felt being there.”

Woods’ biggest bugaboo of late has been his putting, which he said he “worked on pretty hard this past week” after repetitive issues at the Memorial. Woods finished that tournament 72nd out of 73 players in strokes gained putting while missing seven putts from inside five feet in just four rounds. By comparison, Woods missed nine such putts during the entire 2006 season.

He currently ranks 89th on the PGA Tour this season in shots gained putting and 119th in putting percentage from five feet.

He likes his chances of improving with the putter this week on poa annua greens — the type of grass he grew up putting on — but acknowledged other parts of his game have gone missing in key moments this season. The way he sees it, that’s just part of the game.

“Golf is always frustrating,” Woods said. “There’s always something that isn’t quite right, and that’s where we, as players, have to make adjustments.

“And, you know, you’ve seen the tournaments I’ve played in this year: There’s always something. Hopefully, this is one of those weeks where I put it all together and even it out, and we’ll see what happens.”

If it all comes together, Woods would find himself contending for his first major title since he won a decade ago at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, which might be something of a foreign experience after so many years.

However, long known for his intense mental approach as much as physical skill, Woods doesn’t expect any issues reacclimating to the pressure-packed environment in the event that he finds himself atop the leaderboard on Sunday.

“Whether there will be any extra pressure, I think that’s just natural there would be,” Wood said. “I mean, it’s a major championship. There’s only four of these a year.

“That would be a nice problem to have, and so hopefully I can do that.”

–Field Level Media

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