TIGER WOODS rarely lets his guard down long enough to tell us what he really thinks about anything, which is kind of a shame but understandable in the age of bloggers, Facebook and Twitter. Stewart Cink tweets. Tiger would never even consider it. Remember, he's the one who named his yacht Privacy, after his most prized possession. ¶ Jack Nicklaus grew up in a less complicated time, and he rarely fails to tell us exactly what he's thinking. So on Sunday night, after Tiger had birdied three of the last four holes to shoot a seven-under 65 at Muirfield Village and win Jack's tournament, the Memorial, for the fourth time, Nicklaus made a prediction. "I expect Number 15 will come for Tiger in about two weeks," he said, referring to Woods's victories in major championships. "If he drives the ball this way and plays this way, I'm sure it will. If not, it would surprise me greatly." ¶ No pressure when the greatest player of all time (for the time being) calls your shot, is there? Actually, no. Any JACK SAYS TIGER WILL TAKE OPEN headlines aren't going to bother Woods, because after he had played his best round in a year to charge past Jonathan Byrd, Jim Furyk and Davis Love III and win by a stroke over Furyk, Nicklaus was simply stating the obvious. ¶ There are three reasons many are tempted to concede next week's U.S. Open at Bethpage to Tiger—four, if you count Jack's endorsement. ¶ One, Tiger, who trails only Nicklaus, 18 to 14, in majors won, was victorious at the last Open held at the Black course, in 2002. ¶ Two, after reconstructive surgery on his left knee, Tiger had been struggling off the tee. On Sunday at the Memorial, Tiger hit all 14 fairways—a feat he last accomplished in 2003 at Bay Hill—and was 49 of 56 (87.5%) for the week, his most accurate showing since the '98 Masters. In addition to working hard with his swing coach, Hank Haney, on his tee shots, Tiger recently tweaked his driver, adding a half-degree of loft, to 10 degrees, and shortening the shaft, first from 45 inches to 44¾ and now to 44¼. When he turned pro, in 1996, Woods was still using a shortish, 43½-inch driver.
Three, Tiger's rebuilt knee (no truth to the rumor that it may be bionic) is getting stronger. Only last month did Woods resume hitting balls after competitive rounds, doing so twice at the Quail Hollow Championship. By the Players Championship he was practicing after nearly every round. Since coming back at the Accenture Match Play in February, Woods had been telling reporters that his knee was great and it wasn't an issue. That wasn't exactly the case, and now, finally, he's admitting as much. Practice makes perfect, and without all of his normal practice—Tiger can be a real Ranger Rick, as he likes to call frequent ball beaters—the recovering Tiger couldn't be perfect.
"I take so much joy out of practicing," Woods says. "That was the hardest part—I wasn't able to practice the way I used to. I usually hit a lot of balls and play a lot of holes, but I wasn't able to do that."
When Woods won at Bay Hill in late March, he says, he could hit only right-to-left shots. That was limiting for a player who relishes shotmaking and talks about the game's nine essential shots—the fade, the draw and the straight ball on low, medium and high trajectories.
On Sunday a disappointed Furyk quoted from the Book of Tiger, saying "second place sucks." He also proclaimed that Woods's performance proves he's all the way back. "I'm sure he answered a lot of questions today," Furyk said. "A 65 on those greens is pretty spectacular." Furyk added that it was time to stop speculating about Tiger's game. "I wish [the media] would quit chapping him so much to make him come back and keep proving stuff."
Clearly, Woods is back to where he wants to be, physically and in terms of how he plays the game, same as his buddy Roger Federer. Woods watched Federer win the French Open on Sunday morning and admitted to being so nervous during the final that at times he yelled at the TV.
Asked when he last struck the ball this well, Woods said, deadpan, "Hoylake. I did all right there." Woods put on a clinic with his long irons at Royal Liverpool in 2006, when he won the British Open. When he later added, "I feel good now," he wasn't talking simply about his repaired knee. He was talking about his game, his swing, his confidence. And maybe about his chances at Bethpage. Not that he'd tell us.