By DOUG FERGUSON, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Beaten down at Augusta, now the man to beat at the U.S. Open.
The expectations that have followed Tiger Woods this year are a lot like the fairways at The Olympic Club — up, down, often sideways.
He couldn't close out tournaments the way he once did. He lost his putting stroke. His left Achilles tendon might be more of a problem than he was letting on. He had his worst finish ever at the Masters. He missed a cut.
And in the midst of such a gloomy outlook, Woods won by five shots at Bay Hill and delivered an uppercut fist pump at Memorial when he chipped in for birdie to complete a stunning rally for his second win of the year.
So when the question came up Tuesday at the U.S. Open — whether Woods had to win a major to end such prognosticating — he all but rolled his eyes.
"I think even if I do win a major championship, it will still be, 'You're not to 18 yet' or 'When will you get to 19?' It's always something with you guys," Woods said. "I've dealt with that my entire career, ever since I was an amateur and playing all the way through and to professional golf. It hasn't changed."
Even so, this U.S. Open figures to go a long way toward figuring out how close he is to returning to the top of golf.
Woods couldn't stop talking about how the U.S. Open presents the toughest test players face all year — so tough that he probably won't be talking to Phil Mickelson, his longtime rival who will be playing with him in the opening two rounds.
"This is one of those championships that I think the guys talk the least to one another because it's so difficult," he said.
Woods looks as equipped as ever.
Two weeks ago, he played so well at Muirfield Village that he was ranked in the middle-of-the-pack in putting and still rallied from four shots behind to win. He has talked about playing well in spurts, and conceded after that win — the 73rd of his PGA Tour career — that he hit the ball great all four rounds.
Just like that, he became the betting favorite at Olympic Club to get his 15th major — and first since the 2008 U.S. Open — and resume his pursuit of the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
Then again, his win at Bay Hill made him the pre-tournament rage at the Masters, and he tied for 40th.
"I guess lately, we don't know what to expect from him," Steve Stricker said. "When he wins, we're all eager to look ahead and think that he's going to be back to where he was in the early 2000s or whenever he was at the top of his game. I think that just shows you the ability that he has, and what people see in the type of player that he is, and the type of shots that he's been able to hit over the years, and the uncanny ability to just get it done and win golf tournaments.
"So when he does win one, I think that's why we're all quick to hop on his bandwagon."
Woods sees a different trend from the first major of the year. He managed his game at Bay Hill, in part because of a sloppy start by Graeme McDowell that gave Woods a cushion and allowed him to play the shots he needed to win the tournament.
"When I went into Augusta, I did not feel comfortable hitting the ball up," Woods said. "And I got back into a lot of my old patterns. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. But that's what made playing Muirfield so nice. I had those shots, and I was doing it the correct way. And I had compression, hitting the ball high and hitting it long. That was fun."
Olympic is all about hitting it in the fairway, and the right spots on the green.
The golf course is longer than when Woods tied for 18th in 1998, though that isn't the biggest change. The greens have been resurfaced, and they roll so fast that it's difficult to get the ball close. Plus, the USGA has shaved some areas off the green to form large collection areas. A slight miss could send the ball some 30 yards away.
Woods told of the par-3 13th during a practice round in which he hit the green, and the ball rolled down a slope and just inside a hazard.
"I think this probably tests the player more than any other championship," Woods said. "We have to shape the ball. We have to hit the ball high. We have to hit the ball low. Our short game's got to be dialed in."