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U.S. OPEN AT SHINNECOCK HILLS | GOLF / THOMAS BONK

Course Could Earn Its Stripes

June 16, 2004|THOMAS BONK

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — He played a practice round for the U.S. Open late Monday afternoon and another one early Tuesday morning, so Tiger Woods has seen all that Shinnecock Hills Golf Club has to offer, both early and late, and he knows what the Open is all about.

No one is quite sure, though, when Woods will win another major title. He says he's getting closer. He didn't mean geographically, but he could have, because he is at least in the same vicinity where he won his last one, two years ago, just down the Long Island Expressway at Bethpage Black.

Woods, once at his best in major tournaments, has not won in the last seven of them as the 104th U.S. Open prepares to inflict the maximum amount of pain possible under the laws of nature, thanks to what may be one of the toughest setups these players have seen.

It's tough to win a major, as Woods has learned in the last two years, but it figures to get harder here, with Shinnecock Hills playing relentlessly difficult.

Not only are the fairways narrow and hard as a Shinnecock rock -- normal problems -- but also the greens are more much more diabolically disposed than merely firm and hard. Many are crowned, slanted or sloped, which means that keeping a ball on them could be the feat of the week. During practice rounds Tuesday on the 189-yard, par-three seventh hole, players were putting off the green into bunkers.

And those were only the players who had been fortunate enough to actually get the ball on the green, which slopes from the front right to the back left, or from here to eternity.

If the wind blows and it doesn't rain, there might be mandatory counseling sessions for the players so that nobody does anything rash, such as driving his courtesy car off the end of Long Island.

Phil Mickelson, for one, said he didn't see how anybody could shoot around par if it stayed calm and nothing happened to soften the course.

If this sounds like the perfect place for Woods to get his major magic working again, well, it's all he has. Players generally don't mind difficult courses and trying conditions, but they do mind an unfair setup or one that favors only one kind of player.

At Bethpage Black, there was a 270-yard carry into the wind just to reach the fairway at the 10th hole. That favored the power hitters, of course, and Tiger won there, which sort of proved the point.

Woods said Shinnecock was going to be a great test, which means we're going to find out soon whether he flunks. Tuesday, a relaxed and rested Tiger reflected on the much-discussed state of his swing as well as his recent streak of bad luck in the majors. If some believe that his streak is nearing crisis proportions, perhaps they forget that he played 10 majors without winning, between his 1997 Masters victory and the 1999 PGA Championship.

Starting then, Woods won seven of the next 11 majors, which is probably why so much is expected of him. Woods said Tuesday he didn't care how many experts analyze his swing because they don't know what he's trying to get done, and he's getting tired of the whole discussion. Woods also said he was not weary about talking about majors, because he could have won at Hazeltine, where Rich Beem won the 2002 PGA Championship, and at Royal St. George's in last year's British Open, which Ben Curtis won.

It really does seem like a long time between major victories, Woods said, but added that he'd been competitive in most of them and that, with a little bit of luck, that streak wouldn't be in play right now.

Maybe, but it's also true that he hasn't been a factor in either of his last two majors. His tie for 39th at last year's PGA Championship at Oak Hill was his worst in the tournament and his tie for 22nd in the Masters two months ago was his worst since he was an amateur.

That's the kind of baggage Woods carries with him this week at Shinnecock, although he probably would prefer to check it at the curb as soon as possible. Tiger says he's ready for the U.S. Open and that's only fitting, because Shinnecock is certainly ready for him, and everyone else who thinks he can tame the place.

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