By Thomas Bonk
Pebble Beach, Calif. - Tiger Woods wore a blue sweatshirt over his black collarless shirt and headed for his silver courtesy car after his practice round on a cool and foggy Tuesday at Pebble Beach.
Just before he slipped inside, he turned around, glanced up at the sky and smiled.
"Can't anybody here turn up the temperature a little bit?" Woods said.
Chances are Woods may start feeling the heat when the U.S. Open Championship begins Thursday at the rugged Pebble Beach Golf Links. There are three U.S. Open titles among Woods' 14 major championship victories, but so far, there are only hints that Woods is prepared to add to his total this week.
Since he began his year with a fourth-place at the Masters, Woods has played only nine additional rounds. He missed the cut at Quail Hollow, withdrew after three rounds because of a sore neck at the Players and tied for 19th at the Memorial. Admittedly, it's a small sampling, but that also could be one of his problems coming into the U.S. Open - it may not be enough tournaments to achieve the proper improvements in his game.
Woods didn't sound worried Tuesday. He said that he's on the right track.
"As far as my game, I'm very excited about how it's progressed, since before the Memorial and now it's gotten better," Woods said. "The more time I've been able to practice and play, it's starting to solidify and I'm actually excited to tee it up on Thursday."
Woods' problems this year have started on the tee. His average driving distance is down some 17 yards from last year, to 281.4 yards, which ranks only 113th on the PGA Tour. Plus, Woods is 164th in fairways hit. The combination of those two statistics have sunk Woods to 191st in total driving, which has been too much of a drag to allow Woods' PGA Tour-leading putting average of 1.7 to have more of an impact.
It may be to Woods' advantage that Pebble measures a tidy 7,040 yards, making it the shortest U.S. Open course since Shinnecock Hills, which played at 6,996 yards in 2004. But Pebble Beach is par 71 while Shinnecock Hills was a par 70. A shorter, faster course such as Pebble Beach, with fairways that run, would permit Woods to use his 3-wood off the tee and he is more accurate with a 3-wood.
"I'm probably going to hit just a handful of drivers out there," Woods said. "The golf course is getting so fast. Some of the holes where you would think you would hit driver, 3-wood is now starting to become a choice."
Woods practiced at Pebble Beach on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and will play the back nine in his final tune-up Wednesday.
This will be Woods' first tournament at Pebble Beach since he played the 2002 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
But one of Woods' most memorable moments came at Pebble Beach, where he won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots.
Woods said this isn't really the same Pebble Beach course where he cruised to such a convincing victory in the U.S. Open, or even when he last played it in 2002.
"It's interesting to see the golf course, how much it has changed, some of the redesigns they have made," Woods said. "Different strategies, different shots, and obviously it's playing a lot firmer than it does here in February. The greens are starting to get a little bit more springy, starting to come to life now."
For there to be a chance for a 15th major title, Woods' game also needs to gain a little more spring, and he knows it. He's paired with Ernie Els and Lee Westwood for the first two rounds, and both are playing well. It's going to be a challenge for Woods to keep up with them, but he said he's ready.
"I've got a great pairing," Woods said. "I think we're going to have a good time."
Thomas Bonk is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA Web sites.