By Steve Silverman
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Tiger Woods will have an opportunity to make his statement at the U.S. Open.
Earlier this year, the golf world was up and dancing when Woods won Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Classic. The thought was that with Tiger's return to the winner's circle, he would waltz into Augusta and put his stamp on the Masters.
Tiger has once again served notice that he is again a major factor when he won Jack Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament, providing a signature moments when he dropped in a ridiculously difficult flop shot on the 16th hole that had Nicklaus singing his praises and climbing the hype ladder himself. "Under the circumstances," Nicklaus said on the CBS broadcast, "I don't think I've ever seen a better shot."
Calm down, Jack.
Nobody, not even the great Nicklaus, is immune to Tiger-hype. Winning the Memorial is a significant achievement for Woods, as it would be for any golfer. It's a tournament that ranks just below the majors in overall importance.
The win allowed Woods to tie Nicklaus with 73 career wins on the PGA tour, but that's not the number Woods truly wants. He's going after Nicklaus's record of 18 major tournament victories and his next chance to add to his total of 14 majors will come at the U.S. Olympic Club in San Francisco June 14.
While the game's great geniuses who analyze every stroke that Tiger and the other contenders take will try to tell you that "Tiger's back" or "he'll never be the same" with authority and force, the truth is that they have no idea. Neither does Woods himself. After winning the Memorial by two strokes over Rory Sabbatini and Andres Romero, Woods refused to add to the hype. He was happy with his final round of 67 and that he birdied three of the last four holes, but he knows that doesn't mean a thing when he tees off at the U.S. Open.
That's a whole new tournament and momentum means very little when he competes 10 days from now. He had all aspects of his game working, but that doesn't mean he'll be able to repeat it in San Francisco. Having the confidence that comes from winning twice this season will probably help his approach for the U.S. Open, but he will have to go out and execute each shot to have an opportunity to beat Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar.
Nobody understands this better than Woods. Since his personal life became public fodder in late 2009, Woods has become one of the most polarizing figures in sports. Like Michael Vick, some people will never forgive him for his transgressions. But golf's spotlight will always shine brighter on him than any other competitor. As long as a case can be made for Woods, he will command center stage.
If any one factor is going to keep Woods from passing Nicklaus, it is probably health. Woods has had a litany of medical problems throughout his career and that part tends to get overlooked. He has had five medical procedures on his left knee, including three bouts of ACL surgery. He has also has two stress fractures of his left tibia and he ruptured his right Achilles. Other injury issues include inflammation in the neck, a right ankle issue and a medial collateral ligament sprain of the left knee.
Woods' medical issues almost always take a back seat to his personal issues. New health problems could crop up at any time, especially with his left knee which has had so many procedures. He deserves credit for rehabbing from all of his health issues and getting his game to the point where he is in a position to add to his major championships.
Ten years ago, Woods won his second U.S. Open when he fired a final round of 72 to win with a score of 3-under par for the tournament that was played at the remarkably difficult Bethpage Black course. He won the tournament by three strokes over Phil Mickelson and that was the eighth major championship of his career. At that point, it seemed like he would zoom past Nicklaus.
It hasn't happened that way. Woods has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. He's a long way from a guarantee to win this year's national championship, but he does appear to have a legitimate chance.
One thing is certain: The whole world will be watching.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who's Better, Who's Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).
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