By Stuart Hall
Farmingdale, N.Y. — Tiger Woods’ otherworldly career is but a compendium of numbers.
The most significant is 14, which represents the total majors won and his place among the game’s all-time greatest winners.
“Jack [Nicklaus]. He’s got 18,” said Woods when questioned about who was the greatest player.
There are others such as 67 (number of PGA Tour titles; third all time) or 67.79 (PGA Tour adjusted scoring average record — which he has done twice) or six (number of consecutive USGA amateur titles won — three U.S. Junior Amateurs, three U.S. Amateurs) or four (number of consecutive majors won, otherwise known as the "Tiger Slam").
Another number that carries a certain amount of cache is two, which represents the ability to win back-to-back major championships. Woods has won the Masters, British Open and PGA Championship in consecutive years, but has never successfully followed up any of his three U.S. Open titles.
In fact, no one has ever pulled off the feat of winning all four majors in back-to-back years. Not Nicklaus or Ben Hogan.
To do so this week at the 109th U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course — a venue at which Woods won the 2002 Open — would put him in another small and unique class.
Since World War II, only Ben Hogan (1950-51) and Curtis Strange (1988-89) have won consecutive U.S. Open titles. Ralph Guldahl (1937-38), amateur Bob Jones (1929-30) and John McDermott (1911-12) have also accomplished the feat, while Willie Anderson remains the only golfer to claim three straight U.S. Opens (1903-05).
“Generally, this is the hardest major we face year in, year out,” said Woods during his Tuesday press conference. “Narrowest fairways, highest rough. And probably only here and Augusta throughout the year are going to have the fastest greens.”
To win a major, much less consecutive majors, all facets of a player’s game must be as precise as a diamond cutter. Beyond the delicate technical swing aspects visible to the eye, there is also the taxing mental rigor a player must endure.
Only Strange can offer the perspective of what is needed to win that next year’s U.S. Open. Ten years after his second win in 1989, Strange was asked what Lee Janzen, the 1998 winner at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif., would need to repeat. He might just as well have been talking about any year.
“You just have to keep working and stay focused, and you know what it takes to do it,” said Strange. “Obviously, it takes a good golf game. There's no getting around that. Put that aside, everything being equal, you just have to … he just wants a chance on Sunday. Just stay around and have an opportunity, and then things could go his way.
“They did go my way. I didn't so much win the second U.S. Open; I hung [around] and I survived while everybody else kind of went south. And that's what happens.”
Australian Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 winner at Winged Foot Golf Club, believes it is both a blessing and a burden going into that next year’s opportunity.
“There will be aspects of it that would be more difficult, and aspects that would be easier,” said Ogilvy. “You're the most recent winner of the U.S. Open in the field and a lot to do with winning U.S. Opens is thinking you can or believing that you can.
“So you have the most recent good history of the tournament, if you like. I played horrible at Oakmont, but I was going OK for the first couple of rounds, just because the year before and knowing I could do it kind of thing. And it probably got me a couple of shots better than it might have done.”
Other than Woods, the only active player to have won the same major in successive years is Padraig Harrington, who will seek his third straight British Open in July. He echoed Ogilvy’s sentiment that the title is sometimes not entirely determined inside the ropes, but rather inside the head.
“I look at my own situation, and I don't think I could have been in a better prepared situation to win a major than I was in terms of my media experience,” said Harrington, who also claimed the 2008 PGA Championship. “I've seen other players who have won majors and possibly wouldn't have that experience. I've seen how hard it is, and it's amazing how hard it must be for guys who haven't … I've grown up from the age of 15 dealing with the Irish press. Every time I played a round of golf I would be interviewed, so I would be somewhat comfortable with that.
“It's been a little bit of a burden, no question about it. But it's a burden you would love to handle; anybody would love to handle. But it would be even tougher for some of the guys who maybe wouldn't have experienced that over the years.”
In the 19 years since Strange’s U.S. Open double, only six U.S. Open champions did not win a second major of any sort, though the possibility still exists for Ogilvy, Jim Furyk and Michael Campbell. Cabrera claimed his second major in April at the Masters.
In addition to history working against Woods, there are a couple of other trends making it more difficult. There was a time when the U.S. Open was literally dominated by Americans. In the 30 years after Tony Jacklin’s win in 1970, only two non-Americans — Australian David Graham (1981) and Ernie Els (1994, ’97) — won the title. Since 2000, though, five non-Americans – Retief Goosen (2001 and 2004), Campbell (2005), Ogilvy (2006) and Cabrera (2007) – have hoisted the trophy, thus bringing more players into the mix.
There is the also the notion that a U.S. Open set up benefits one style of player. No longer, Woods suggested.
“There used to be a mold,” said Woods of the so-called prototypical player. “I'm sure some of the years past it seemed like every person was a pretty short hitter, very straight. Look at Scott Simpson, Curtis. Even though [Nick] Faldo didn't win it, he was always right there.
“That seemed like that was the type of player that it took to win U.S. Opens. But now I think that it has changed a little bit. There's different ways of playing. You can do what Angel [Cabrera] did, hit driver every hole at Oakmont. If it works out, it works out, which it did. Or you can play a shorter, more conservative game.”
Come Sunday evening, Woods will have only one number in mind — that his 72-hole score is the lowest in the field.
Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose stories have previously appeared on USGA championship Web sites.