Wait’ll you hear this: Guess whose swing advice Tiger Woods has been following? Not Hank Haney (he’s been busy with Charles Barkley). Not Butch Harmon. (They’re divorced.) Nor that moose of a caddie, Steve Williams.
None of the above. Jack Nicklaus, that’s who. Happened during a news conference at the Memorial, when somebody asked Jack what he thought about the progress of Tiger’s return from the disabled. Remember, the Masters and the Players had passed without a trophy. Now he had a round of 74 to face up to at Dublin, when Jack was put on the stand.
“If you look at his golf swing, I don’t think he moves out of the way of the ball like he used to,” the tournament host said. (Remember, he and Tiger had been paired in a Skins Game the day before the Memorial. Tiger had looked like best-in-show, but that was fun and games.)
“I think that’s probably protective, and that’s probably good.”
When that testimony reached Tiger, he agreed, then according to what I’ve heard since, went straight to the practice tee and let it fly.
After that, from what I saw on television, the turn in his game became official on the 11th hole Sunday afternoon. His ball lay in some gnarly grass above the green, no way to stop it — unless it found the cup. He took a full swing with a blade, the ball popped up and rolled gently down the green — and into the cup for an eagle.
On his way. Then, there was the approach on the 18th, which his eyes followed as if in concern — then the camera caught the ball lying about a foot from the cup. Birdie, over and back in the trophy business.
A lineup of challengers had their chances, some of a nameless variety, from Matt Bettencourt to Davis Love III, and they came to grief on various junctures.
And the poor chap Tiger was paired with, Michael Letzig, it’s amazing he didn’t die of shell-shock.
“That’s the best golf I’ve ever seen,” Letzig said. “[And] people have been writing that Tiger isn’t striking the ball well?” Letzig shot 75 — and had the best view in the house.
So now we move from Ohio to Long Island, back to Bethpage and a rematch with the Black course, where Tiger won the Open in 2002. This is a truly public course, five of them, in fact, cleverly named Blue, Green, Red and Yellow. And the Black is toughest of them all, and toughest to get on. Hopeful players sleep in their cars, hoping to get a starting time. It’s a museum course, originally laid out by the dowdy A.W. Tillinghast, and redone by Rees Jones for the ‘02 Open, but only tweaked for this one. It’s only for masochists, those who play to be punished.
Stars come to play the course that is owned and operated by the state of New York. Getting on is about as easy as getting out of Sing Sing. To play this public course, Tiger will probably arrive by yacht, his personal craft obtusely named “Privacy.” Phil Mickelson finished second by three strokes in ‘02 and will find the beery metropolitan gallery kinder this time. The world is aware of his wife Amy’s breast cancer.
This is a field playing for the national championship, and there are pros who have to go through qualifying hassle like any common Joe. Some who didn’t make it: Chris DiMarco, Jose Maria Olazabal, Lee Janzen (two-time champion), Aaron Baddeley, Steve Flesch, Jonathan Byrd and his fellow St. Simon’s Island resident, Love III.
Freshly charged with his diagnosis by Dr. Nicklaus, the captain of “Privacy” should have a smooth sail here. This course is long, tough, with rare elevations and one pond, and just the kind of brutal challenge Tiger feasts on.
Bring it on.