- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Don’t expect to see any rust on the game of golf’s goliath.

Tiger Woods makes his return to competitive play this week at Winged Foot, ending a nine-week layoff following the Masters. In the interim, he dealt with the May 3 death of his father, Earl , a blow that prompted him to put away his clubs for more than a month while he comforted his mother and sorted through the emotional fallout of losing his best friend.

But the 30-year-old Woods doesn’t look like a man drained by a month of mourning. In fact, he seemed rejuvenated yesterday as he addressed the media for the first time since he tied for third at Augusta National. And he certainly doesn’t sound daunted by the prospect of staging his competitive return in the most arduous major of the season on what is expected to be among the most difficult courses in U.S. Open history.

“Going through what we had to go through — everyone has got to go through it, but it’s never easy,” said Woods, whose most recent of 10 major titles came at last year’s British Open. “Hitting a golf ball around like this is the easy part. … I know that Dad would still want me to go out there and grind it and give it my best, and that’s what I always do. I’m here to compete. I’m here to win the tournament. And all my energy is going toward that.”

Athletes often take solace in the all-consuming distraction of sports after personal losses. But Woods wanted nothing to do with the game immediately following his father’s death.

“I think one of the hardest things for me, in all honesty, was to get back to the game of golf, because a lot of my memories, great memories that I have with my dad, are at the golf course. It was hard at times going out there late in the evening like I always do to practice and remembering. Any time you take time off and start back, you always work on your fundamentals — grip, posture, stance, alignment. Well, that’s what I learned from Dad.

“From that standpoint, it was certainly a little more difficult than I had expected. But also, then again, it brought back so many great memories, and every time I thought back I always had a smile on my face.”

Woods shared one of those memories yesterday, recalling the first time he ever beat his father in typically precise Tiger fashion.

“I beat Dad when I was 11,” Woods said. “I shot 71 to his 72 at the [Seal Beach] Navy golf course [in Cypress, Calif.]. I birdied 16 and 18, made about a 15-footer, a little right-to-left. I gave it the fist pump walking off the green and everything. It went in, and we celebrated.”

Despite the initial halting, bittersweet nature of his return to the game, Woods claims his recent practice sessions have been extremely productive. He made a special trip to Winged Foot to develop a course strategy with instructor Hank Haney on May 27, and he’s been working on his game with his customary intensity ever since.

Most players find tournament play necessary to hone their competitive focus. But Woods, like Jack Nicklaus before him, has always found his private practice sessions more beneficial than competition.

“I’m very excited about the way I’ve played at home and even more excited about the way I’ve played here,” Woods said. “Some guys like to play a lot [of tournaments] prior to events and play their way into shape. I’ve always practiced myself into shape.”

Woods certainly has positive history supporting that approach. Not only has he never played the week before a major, Woods has posted victories in both of his starts following lengthy layoffs. After undergoing knee surgery after the 2002 season, Woods didn’t touch a club for two months before returning to win the Buick Invitational. He then repeated the feat after a six-week layoff to “recharge [his] batteries” after last season, once again besting the field at Torrey Pines. His scoring average in those eight rounds: a sparkling 68.75.

But Woods faces perhaps the stiffest challenge of his career this week in suddenly Slam-happy Phil Mickelson. Lefty captured his second consecutive major two months ago at the Masters, and perhaps only club member and qualifier Andrew Svoboda has logged more onsite prep work than Mickelson, who made five trips to Winged Foot before this week and has now logged more than a dozen practice rounds on the 7,276-yard, par-70 West Course.

When asked about Woods’ extended layoff, the 36-year-old Mickelson completely dismissed the notion that Tiger might have arrived at this week’s potential showdown in less than his best form.

“I’ve never seen a tournament when he has not been prepared to win, unfortunately,” he quipped. “I would expect him to be 100 percent, because he’s had a lot of time now to work on his game and get sharp and focus in on just this one tournament.”

Interestingly, Woods was equally dismissive when asked about his growing rivalry with Mickelson:

“[The media] keeps asking me things like that. … Ernie was there for a little bit, then Vijay, Goose and now Phil. I suppose as long as I can be part of that conversation, it’s never a bad thing.”

Consider that imperious take on Lefty’s current major run the first shot of the 106th U.S. Open.

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