- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Well, now we know how Tiger Woods spent the last two weeks after forsaking the Kemper (again). He spent them rediscovering the putting stroke that won him the 2000 U.S. Open by more than two touchdowns and made him as invincible that year as a golfer gets.

Tiger had such a feel for Pebble Beach's greens that he could have putted them blindfolded. If he missed a putt all week, it must have been on the carpet of his rental house, because we sure didn't see it.

Yesterday was almost a replay of that. Tiger rolled the ball so well in the first round of the Open that he seemed to be communing with A.W. Tillinghast, Bethpage Black's original designer.

It must be awfully discouraging to the rest of the field to see Tiger making birdies and saving pars and shooting an opening 67, good for a one-shot lead. After all, he's already hitting more greens in regulation than anybody on the tour (and he's third in sand saves, too). If he's going to putt well this week that's the one part of his game that's been lagging who can possibly beat him?

Make no mistake, 3 under is a terrific score here. Paul Stankowski thinks 3 or 4 under might be as low as you can go, and then only "if you are really dialed in." The Black Course is not only a mercilessly long (7,214 yards) par 70, it's got more sand than nearby Jones Beach. As Padraig Harrington put it, "At no stage does this course let up."

You have to go back to 1986 to Shinnecock the year Raymond Floyd won to find a first-round leader who posted a score higher than 3 under. And Tiger shot his 3 under on a day when Bethpage Black was relatively benign. The wind was down and the the one part of his game that's been lagging who can possibly beat him?

Make no mistake, 3 under is a terrific score here. Paul Stankowski thinks 3 or 4 under might be as low as you can go, and then only "if you are really dialed in." The Black Course is not only a mercilessly long (7,214 yards) par 70, it's got more sand than nearby Jones Beach. As Padraig Harrington put it, "At no stage does this course let up."

You have to go back to 1986 to Shinnecock the year Raymond Floyd won to find a first-round leader who posted a score higher than 3 under. And Tiger shot his 3 under on a day when Bethpage Black was relatively benign. The wind was down and the greens, softened by Wednesday's rains, were unusually receptive to aggressive play.

"This golf course is playing more difficult than Pebble was," said Tiger, who put up a 65 on the first day two years ago. "It's longer, for one. The greens are small like Pebble's, but I think these are more undulatory. Also, Pebble's rough wasn't as thick. You still had a good shot at getting it to the green. Here you've got no shot at getting it to the green."

Indeed, only one other golfer even got a sniff of 3 under yesterday Davis Love after a front-nine birdie binge. But Love took his lumps on the back and wound up 1 over. "These flat greens are pretty tricky," he said.

That seems to have caught the players by surprise. They didn't expect the greens to be so difficult to decipher. Sergio Garcia, alone in second after a 68, called them "probably the slopiest, flattest greens I've ever seen in my life." How do greens manage to be slopey and flat at the same time? Only Mr. Tillinghast knows.

And maybe Mr. Woods. "I felt I controlled the speed of my putts well and that's the key to making putts," he said. "The only time I've putted better this year was at Augusta. I didn't have a three-putt there until the fifth hole Sunday and that was from 70 or 80 feet.

"You have to be careful here. A lot of these putts tend to run off on the other side of the holes they go up, then down. And the USGA had some really good [read: nasty] pin placements."

The only time I've putted better this year was at Augusta. An interesting statement that, because Tiger has won two other tournaments in recent months besides the Masters Bay Hill (for the third straight time) and the Deutsche Bank over in Germany. But he feels his putter was more obedient yesterday than it was in those events. Uh-oh.

How does he do it? In his last tournament, the Memorial, he looked alternately stale and tuckered out from his world travels. (Thus his 22nd-place finish in an event he had owned the previous three years). But after prepping for the Open for two weeks with swing instructor Butch Harmon, he's splitting fairways, draining putts and generally behaving like he intends to win the Grand Slam. You can name on one hand the number of athletes, in any sport, who have been able to turn it on like that.

But Tiger still has some work to do. This isn't an 18-hole tournament and Open courses, as we all know, have a habit of biting back. (Just ask David Duval, the '99 first-round leader, who shot 75-75 on the weekend.) Besides, the ever formidable Garcia and Phil Mickelson (70) are very much in the picture, along with a fellow named Nick Faldo (70).

"Even with the course playing as soft as it could," Mickelson said, " it's still one of the more difficult setups that the Open has had. And if the greens were to get firm and the wind were to pick up, it's going to be quite a few over par that would ultimately win. Even under these conditions, over par will most likely win."

Tiger is just the type of player, though, to take that as a challenge.


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