- Tiger Woods's last major win came a decade ago, back at the 2008 U.S. Open. That victory is what got him into this year's field, and he's not taking this opportunity to compete for granted.
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Perhaps the most charming aspect of the U.S. Open is right there in the name. Theoretically, anyone has a shot at making the field. This year, the greatest player of his generation came as close as he ever has to needing a lifeline just to join them.
There are 16 ways to enter the Open. At his peak, Tiger Woods could have chosen from 10 of them. This year he was down to two.
First are the 112 local qualifier tournaments, staged mostly by regional golf associations. The other 15 routes offer exemptions from qualifying. There are three for amateurs, plus one for the winner of last year’s Senior Open and one for the winner of the European Tour championship.
Woods did not win the Masters, the British Open or the PGA Championship in the last five years. He did not win the Players Championship in the last three. He did not play last year’s Open, let alone finish among the top 10. He was not one of the 30 golfers who qualified for the PGA Tour Championship. He was not among the top-60-ranked players as of three weeks ago. (He was 82nd.) He was not among the top-60-ranked players as of yesterday. (He was 80th.) That’s 14. If not for the 15th way—winners of the previous 10 U.S. Opens automatically receive bids—Woods might have been teeing up with dentists and stockbrokers at a local qualifier, as former world No. 1 Adam Scott did a week ago. But Woods’s last Open win came in 2008, exactly 10 years ago. Next year that exemption expires.
Of course, the USGA would never play a U.S. Open without a healthy Tiger Woods. They would enlist option No. 16, a special exemption, as they did this year for Ernie Els and Jim Furyk, both 48 and with three majors between them.
Still, what a development that would have been for a man who shattered the PGA Tour record by making 142 straight cuts over seven years. When Woods’s streak finally ended, by one stroke in 2008, he left Els holding the best active mark: 20.
Instead Woods is here at Shinnecock Hills, drawing huge galleries and fans dressed like him. (At least one person walked the course in a MAKE TIGER GREAT AGAIN T-shirt.) He attracted headlines when it emerged that he will spend nights during Open week on his 155-foot yacht, appropriately named “Privacy,” which is docked in Sag Harbor, about 15 miles northeast of the club. Team Tiger jokingly refers to the 6,500-square-foot vessel as “the dinghy.”
In many ways, he is back. This is the man who made four double bogeys playing on a broken leg at Torrey Pines in 2008 and still captured a playoff. He made a triple bogey on Saturday at Pebble Beach in 2000—and still won by 15. Woods used to be so long with his driver and so creative in his short game that he could falter off the tee and recover.
That margin for error is gone. Shinnecock Hills offers only one par-5, the 16th hole. Opportunities for birdie are rare. Eight of this year’s holes are longer than 450 yards. The fairways will play narrow. Woods ranks 123rd on tour in shots gained off the tee.
He also faces uncertainty in his once-reliable short game. At the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, Woods missed seven putts inside five feet and 15 inside 10. He finished second to last among the field in shots gained from putting en route to a tie for 23rd place.
Woods spent much of the week fine-tuning his stroke. “Just had to hit a lot of putts,” he says. “Just put in the legwork.”
His struggles could be compounded by the playing surface here: Poa annua, or annual meadowgrass, which is infamous for its various strands, all of which grow at slightly different rates and can make the greens bumpy as the day goes on. He grew up playing on Poa and knows as well as anyone that it can be unforgiving. “A lot of times you can hit great putts on Poa, and it doesn’t go in,” he says. “The key is to hit solid putts and see what happens.”
A year ago this week, he watched the Open on TV, eagerly texting friends in the field to ask how the course was playing. (Soft, they reported. And groundskeepers cut back the rough as the week went on.) Woods had just been cleared to walk. He thought more about his children’s athletic futures than his own. This week he will try to win his first major in a decade.
“This is pure bonus,” he says. “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.”
This will be a difficult tournament for him to win. But that’s the other amazing thing about this year’s U.S. Open: He barely made it, and now we are discussing the possibility that he could win it.