The early Tiger catches the mood

US Open: Memories of Shinnecock Hills painful as Pinehurst sets different test to world's best
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The Independent Online

"One down, three to go." How easy does that make it sound? Indeed, how easy did we think it was forever going to be when Tiger Woods was still the uncontested king of every jungle worth its greenkeeper and when he would prowl up to the US Open - Masters title in tow - with a bloodlust that even Shere Khan would have found distasteful? Except it was never that simple, was it? Anything but, in fact.

"One down, three to go." How easy does that make it sound? Indeed, how easy did we think it was forever going to be when Tiger Woods was still the uncontested king of every jungle worth its greenkeeper and when he would prowl up to the US Open - Masters title in tow - with a bloodlust that even Shere Khan would have found distasteful? Except it was never that simple, was it? Anything but, in fact.

Only once in the eight, seismic years that he has been collecting majors has Tiger won the first two in the season; a telling little statistic that surely bears witness to Jack Nicklaus's long-held assertion that of all the back-to-backers, the Masters-US Open double, with its 10-week gap and its widely differing challenges, is the hardest of them all. And this year it looks more so than ever.

You can usually tell how tough Woods expects a major to be by the time he arrives for his practice rounds. A 6am tee-up on the Tuesday of event week means he suspects it's going to be hellish and he needs every peaceful hour he can steal off the masses (see Muirfield 2002). Any time after 7am and it still represents a damned tricky test, but one that is per-fectly decipherable despite some background distraction (see St Andrews 2000). After 8am, in the midst of the throng, however, and it must be either a complete doddle or the Augusta National, which he knows like the back of his golf glove.

So how demanding does he expect Pinehurst to be this week as he chases his third US Open? Er, Tiger arrived for his practice round last Monday. Ten days before the event seems ridiculously premature even by the 29-year-old's beat-the-crowds standards, not to say that he succeeded in this regard, as he was only able to manage 20 holes of isolation before a few hundred North Carolinans flocked to pay their homage.

But by then, Tiger had seen enough, and rushed through the rest of his 36 holes to finish in five hours flat. Woods never stopped long enough to comment - one baseball cap given away, a dozen autographs refused - but the grin suggested he was happy that this was no Shinnecock Hills and that the USGA had learnt their lesson from last year, when only Retief Goosen was smiling after a last round in which the average score was 78.

Ah, "Shinnecock Hills" - these words still arouse an emotion in professionals that only "mint sauce" might do in sheep. An indication of the bitterness still harboured over the severity of New York's veritable dustbowl of the vanities was that Ernie Els was still heard banging on about it a fortnight ago. "It was a joke," raged the South African, about greens so fast it was like stopping a ball-bearing on the M4. "It can't happen again," he added. "It was totally out of control."

It will happen again, of course, as the USGA are almost Hannibal-like in their rapaciousness, but not this week (unless the winds truly blow infernal). For this is the last major to be overseen by Tom Meeks, the USGA's director of rules and competition, who really wouldn't fancy his legacy to be the Samsonian, back-to-back destruction of two of the three primary pillars in the US Open rotation.

The result, therefore, is almost certain to be an even fairer set-up than the one that played host to the US Open in 1999, when Payne Stewart inched out Phil Mickelson with a 15-footer on the last, four fateful months before the popular 42-year-old died when his Learjet crashed.

The revered No 2 Course (one of eight at the dramatic Pinehurst resort) was still taxing enough for some that week, including Nick Faldo, who recently joked that he, for one, wouldn't be trying to qualify as he preferred "laying concrete, not playing on it". In contrast, Woods fared with distinction a shot back in third, to the surprise of some who feared his erratic approach game would not hold up in such conditions, and this will give him as much encouragement as his third place in last week's Memorial did.

So, too, will the indifferent form of two of three rivals who can now be described as perennial. The no-love-lost battle with Vijay Singh for the world No 1 spot continues apace after the Fijian followed up his fifth place at Augusta with two more Tour titles, but neither Els nor Mickelson have looked like winning in the meantime.

So where else to hunt for worthy alternatives? To the purple patch of Kenny Perry, perhaps, and undoubtedly to Goosen once again, who positively foams at the mouth when everybody is dry with fear in theirs. And Spain's Sergio Garcia should never be discounted on a course that could just suit, as it might the wonderfully controlled game of Luke Donald, whose third at the Masters heralded his arrival at the big time.

However, with no European having won American golf's most prestigious prize since Tony Jacklin in 1970 (who himself ended a winless streak of some 43 years) it might still pay - heavily, in fact - to look up, rather than down, the bookmakers' lists on such a fair track.

As ever, the head says Singh, the heart says Els, a chunk of both says Tiger, while only the betting account says Goosen. All might be drowned out, though, by the howl of the Pinehurst No 2 greens which, with their merciless run-offs and undulations, scream Mickelson and his unique golfbag of tricks.

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