Ten years after his record U.S. Open victory, a different Tiger Woods returns to a different Pebble Beach

The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga previews this year's U.S. Open at the famed Pebble Beach golf course.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. -- The trouncing Tiger Woods inflicted on a helpless U.S. Open field a decade ago at Pebble Beach Golf Links was so thorough, it would seem difficult for a single shot to define the victory. Yet there was one, an implausible, no-one-else-on-earth-could-do-that 7-iron from deep rough to the right of the par-5 sixth hole, a blind, uphill shot of perhaps 205 yards that three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, reminiscing Tuesday, called "one of the most phenomenal shots ever hit in tournament golf."

This week, Woods could walk to that very same spot on that very same hole, and find something completely different. The rough is gone, shaved down, with the idea of bringing the cliffs that hang ominously over Monterey Bay more into play when the Open begins Thursday. Woods considered the changes to the course Tuesday, thought back to the 7-iron that he stuck perhaps 20 feet from the pin, and said, "That's no longer there."

The Woods that made that swing -- and won that tournament by 15 strokes, still a record for a major championship -- may no longer be here, either. In the past 10 months, Woods has faced problems -- both self-inflicted and otherwise -- that have brought everything about him into question. He has been overtaken in the final round of a major championship, taken time away from the game to deal with unseemly revelations about his personal life, returned at the Masters with not a single warmup event, failed to make the cut in a PGA Tour event for the first time in five years, withdrawn from the Players Championship with a nagging neck problem, parted ways with his coach and admitted, quite frankly, that on given days he had little idea where each of his shots might travel.

Thus, the Woods who enters his 16th Open is, in many ways, unrecognizable from previous iterations. His signature performance, right here on this very course, somehow seems more than 10 years old. When Woods made his return at Augusta in April, the maelstrom centered around his personal life and how he might handle a re-entry into the public eye after his scandal. As Woods emerges here for just his fifth tournament of the year, the controversy has largely subsided, at least in golf circles; he was asked but one question about his marriage Tuesday, to which he responded curtly, "That's none of your business." The focus, rather, is on the state of a game that was once impervious to competition, but now -- at the same site where it once dominated -- seems vulnerable.

"I'm very excited about how it's progressed," Woods said of his game, though his most recent performance -- a tie for 19th at the Memorial two weeks ago -- would indicate he has room to improve. "During Memorial, and now here, it's gotten better. The more time I've been able to practice and play, it's started to solidify, and I'm actually really excited to tee it up on Thursday."

There is no way to watch Woods walk the fairways here -- as he did for 18 holes Monday and 13 more Tuesday -- and not think back those 10 years, to when he was 24 and was only beginning to take shape as perhaps the greatest golfer to ever live. The degree of that butt-whipping remains staggering. No one, in the decade since, has won a major championship by more than four shots. In the nine Opens since then, the combined margin of victory has been exactly what Woods won by that year -- 15 strokes.

"It was the greatest performance I've ever seen in the game, to shoot 12 under by Tiger," Woods's chief rival, Phil Mickelson, said Tuesday. "That was the best ball-striking and the best putting tournament that's ever been performed, in my opinion."

Woods was so far ahead so early -- he led by one after 18 holes, by six after 36 and by 10 after 54 -- that Roger Maltbie, serving as an analyst for NBC, said during the broadcast, "It's not a fair fight."

"It did feel like two tournaments, really," said two-time Open champion Ernie Els, who, along with Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, had the distinction of being the runner-up -- if only nominally, finishing at 3 over.

"I've had weeks where I've hit the ball like that before," Woods said. "I've had large margins of victory. But to do it in the U.S. Open, I think it's the only time and only place you can win by just enormous margins if you play well. . . . If you play a golf course when everyone's shooting even par, and you play great, that's when you could see a blowout."

Woods went on, a month later, to record another blowout, an eight-shot victory in the British Open at St. Andrews, where his 19-under total set a new record for major championships. Strip away all the extra-curricular questions, and 2010 -- with the U.S. Open back at Pebble Beach and the British returning to St. Andrews -- seemed to be a significant year for Woods as he pursued the record that has driven him since childhood, Jack Nicklaus's mark of 18 major titles.

"For a long time, most people think [for] Tiger, it's not even [going to be] a challenge," Harrington said.

Now, a victory either here or at St. Andrews -- let alone both -- is anything but guaranteed. "Certainly, the venues do set up well," Woods said. But his last major championship came at this tournament in 2008, when he memorably beat Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff at Torrey Pines. For the decade since he last won here, he has been considered -- both physically and mentally -- in his prime. Now, as each year passes, he will be asked about both his age and potential distractions he's dealing with off the course. As he said, "For some reason, people are very curious about my life."

"You sort of have more things in your life," Woods said. "You have family. . . . You start taking time away from practice. There's nothing wrong with that. You just have to be more focused when you do it. And I think there's no other person who has been better at it than Jack."

Nicklaus, when he was 27, began a string of 10 straight majors in which he didn't post a win. Woods endured such a drought from 2002 to '04. His current lapse is seven -- two of which he missed altogether after knee surgery. The question, long-term, isn't how his game is now, but whether it will ever again return to the point it was 10 years ago, when he could do things others simply couldn't.

"I'm just starting to get my feel back, and I know I have to be patient with it," Woods said. "It's coming along."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company