The questions are different now, if only because Tiger Woods no longer has to explain why he was stuck for more than a decade on 14 major championship wins. That alone had to be worth the smile on his face as he took a break from a session on the driving range at Pebble Beach to assess his chances of adding the U.S. Open title to the Masters green jacket he won just two months ago.
With age comes a certain wisdom, too, and perhaps an understanding that as historic as Woods’ Masters win was, there are a lot more wins in his past than there will be in his future. And, realistically, there will never be a win again like his romp here in 2000, when Woods never missed a putt inside 10 feet and won the Open by a whopping 15 shots.
Woods is 44 now, balding and with the usual aches and pains that go along with age and the wear and tear of swinging a golf club. That he’s still capable of competing at the highest level after back and knee surgeries borders on amazing even in a sport that treats its aging stars better than any other.
Still, the fact he’s one of the favorites in this U.S. Open on the same seaside course where he won so easily 19 years ago has Woods a bit bemused, if not really that surprised.
“How do you compete against kids that were born in the 2000s?” Woods asked. “They were born after I won this damn tournament.”
The answer to that question, of course, is hit the ball straight and make a bunch of putts. It’s basically the formula Woods followed in the 2000 win that was the first of a remarkable four major championships in a row.
And his worries about playing against kids born after his 2000 win might be just a bit overstated. In the field of 156 players, only Michael Thorbjornsen hadn’t been born at that time, and the 17-year-old amateur from Wellesley, Massachusetts, isn’t exactly a betting favorite in his first Open.
But as Woods tees off Thursday in search of another major, he’s as firmly rooted in the past as he is engaged in the present. And that’s not a bad thing on a golf course he played as a child with his dad long before he hoisted an Open trophy in a performance for the ages.
Woods said he was 9 or 10 when he first played Pebble Beach, where he said the green fees were under $100. He knows that because his dad, Earl Woods, vowed to him that they would never play any golf course if it cost more than that.
“It was a long, soft, wet golf course to me,” Woods said. “But it was cool to see that the same thing we watch every year in, what, February, (to) see where the pros play.”
Pebble Beach won’t be soft and wet for this Open. That’s not the way the USGA sets up the national championship, and the forecast says it’s not going to rain this week.
Woods spent time on the putting green Monday and the driving range Tuesday, part of a strategy to conserve his energy and not play the course until it is close to tournament conditions.
So far, though, he likes what he sees.
“There’s nothing like playing a U.S. Open setup here at Pebble Beach,” Woods said. “The golf course is not overly long. It’s not big in that regard, but man, it’s tricky. The greens are all slanted, very small targets. And if they ever firm up, then we have a totally different ballgame.”
There’s a lot to like about Woods’ chances in those conditions, in any conditions. This is a player, you might remember, who finished tied for fourth in the last Open here in 2010, when he was just months removed — and still trying to recover — from a humiliating fall from grace in a marital scandal that shocked the sports world.
He’s been through even more since then, including surgeries and a DUI arrest when he was found parked on a Florida road with five different drugs in his system.
But life seems about as good as it gets these days for Woods. He’s back playing well, has a steady girlfriend, and can’t stop talking about how much his Masters win meant to him because it allowed his two children to see him at the top of his game.
His embrace of them on the 18th green at Augusta National was poignant, bringing back memories of the long hug he gave his own father off the same green in 1997 when he won his first major championship in a runaway.
“They don’t remember me enjoying the game of golf because all they remember is Daddy on the ground in pain,” Woods said. “And so now golf brings me so much joy, they’re able to see that. And if it brings a smile to their faces, it brings a smile to my own.”
And right now, Woods has a lot to smile about.
A Lot to Smile About as Tiger Returns to Pebble