Golf: Tiger back in his natural habitat

US Open: Year's second major is likely to bring the best out of the world's best as he continues to prey on history; Andy Farrell detects a threatening pattern as the Masters champion prepares for a rerun
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The Independent Online
So, we have seen the end of an era. Tiger Woods may have flared brighter than comet Hale-Bopp, but not for much longer. Woods slumped to his worst result as a professional golfer - he even almost missed the cut - when he was 67th in the Memorial last week. Write him off, now.

Or, maybe not. A pattern has emerged in the young superstar's routine and one important aspect is not winning on his last appearance before a major championship. Previously, his lowest finish of the season had come in the Players Championship. Woods took the following week off, practised at home, completing his preparations for the US Masters with a 59 at his club, Isleworth in Orlando, Florida.

Likewise, Woods left a soggy Muirfield Village on Monday saying he knew exactly what he needed to work on before this week's US Open at Congressional, near Washington DC. Woods has not played well, by his standards, since taking a four-week break after the Masters. Refreshed, however, he won the Byron Nelson Classic with his "C-game". Woods could do nothing about this, though, since in between tour events he was signing contracts with American Express and Rolex and winning a one-day pro-am where he was paid $350,000 to attend.

Add in the fallout from the Fuzzy Zoeller affair, in which the former Augusta winner joked that fried chicken would be on the menu at the champions' dinner before next year's Masters, and it is no wonder Woods slipped up in the final round of the Colonial and then crashed down to earth at the Memorial, where he took a quintuple-bogey nine during the third round. Woods said after Augusta that he could not imagine the attention becoming any greater than it already was.

He was wrong. One columnist in the United States has even gone so far as to suggest that after snubbing an invitation from President Clinton to attend a Jackie Robinson celebration; his attitude towards Zoeller in comparison to his own sexist and racist remarks in GQ magazine; and his lack of diplomacy in talking about winning at anything less than his best, that the 21-year-old simply has to win the US Open to counter a growing reputation for "petty and childish" behaviour.

Tigermania has reached Hollywood proportions so it is appropriate that the golfing season brings us a natural sequel to the blockbuster that attracted a record television audience in the US in April. The leading characters all return, but the setting is different and the storyline, despite the likelihood that our hero will again prevail, will be very different. It is hard to see how Woods' rush towards golf's first modern Grand Slam can be quickened after his 12-stroke triumph at Augusta. The US Open is traditionally akin to a route march across a boggy swamp. Only twice has a player won by as many as three strokes since Tony Jacklin's seven-shot victory in 1970. "You are not going to run away with the US Open," said Ernie Els. "It seems the golf course gets back at you." It took Els until the 92nd hole to win his US Open in 1994. The great leveller is the five-inch rough and Congressional's rye grass should prove to be particularly lush. Should he find himself in a really tangly spot, Woods will have to hack out like everyone else.

The answer is not to leave the fairways, which can be as narrow as 28 yards, though most of Woods' victories so far have come on courses with more room off the tee. All this means is that Woods may choke down to a one or two-iron, and still probably out-hit others with their drivers, but the course will be testing a completely different part of Woods' game to that required by Augusta.

For instance, Woods will not be able to hit a driver and a wedge at a par-five. The Blue course at Congressional has only two three-shotters and at 607 yards and 583 yards, depending on conditions, Woods will not necessarily be able to reach in two. At 7,213 yards with a par of 70, Congressional is seriously long, with only one of the par-fours under 400 yards. Woods will still be hitting less club than his opponents, but at least we will get to see how well he can control the odd mid-iron approach.

What Woods cannot control, unless it is in a deeply psychological way, is how well his big-name challengers perform. They were conspicuous by their absence at Augusta, and in the cases of Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, their departures took place on the Friday night. Faldo, like Colin Montgomerie, believes he has the game to emulate Jacklin, but even at the PGA Championship where he was runner-up with Els and Darren Clarke to Ian Woosnam, the six-time major winner never seemed quite at his best. Montgomerie has veered so erratically between the sublime and the ridiculous that he will either win or miss the cut.

Though Norman is no great believer in the world rankings, the closer Woods has got to his No 1 position, the better the Australian has played. Woods only had to finish higher than the Shark at the Memorial to become officially the best player in the world. Norman responded by finishing second. His desire to break his duck in American majors has led him to delegate more of his business dealings. "Now I can spend one or two hours in the office when I'm needed, rather than working eight hours a day," Norman said. "I am enjoying being out here," he added.

Tom Lehman, the Open champion, has been third and second in the last two US Opens and is also returning to his best form. Lehman will play with the defending champion Steve Jones and Woods during the first two rounds. Jones, who was inspired by an account of Ben Hogan's career to win his first major at Oakland Hills, has not exactly been sharing the limelight with Woods and he might recall an incident after the Phoenix Open in January. Jones, unrecognised, was having his hair cut and all the hairdresser could talk about was Woods' hole-in-one in the tournament. Jones had won it.

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