- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. | Fear the total Tiger.

A year after limping into the sunset following one of the gutsiest performances of his career, Tiger Woods is poised to consummate his comeback at Bethpage Black.

After four months of spotty ball striking, faltering finishes and whispers of fatigue, Woods delivered a resounding message two weeks ago at the Memorial:

Golf’s goliath finally is back at full strength. He has returned to the fairway and the practice range. He has rediscovered his finishing kick. And the only thing missing from his post-op resume is a major uprising.

“I like my chances in any major,” Woods said as he prepared to play the 109th U.S. Open on the same massive Bethpage layout where he won by three strokes in 2002. “It’s always nice to play well going into a major championship, no doubt. To get a win always adds to your confidence no matter how you win. If you can win that way, ball striking, hitting it that well, especially going into a U.S. Open, it always makes you feel pretty good.”

Woods didn’t exactly stagger out of the gate following season-ending reconstructive knee surgery after last year’s Open conquest at Torrey Pines. Following a second-round exit in his post-rehab debut at the World Match Play in late February, the 33-year-old strung together five top-10 finishes, including a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, in his opening handful of stroke-play starts.

For most golfers, that represents a superb season’s worth of results. For a man with 14 majors, some issues were impossible to overlook.

Woods struggled more than ever with his accuracy off the tee - always his biggest weakness. He hit just 56.8 percent of fairways in those first five stroke-play starts. His early victory at Bay Hill was somewhat misleading - his suspect play from tee to green was overwhelmed by a tournament-best performance on the greens (101 putts). And he uncharacteristically floundered in final rounds, finishing bogey-bogey at the Masters and then following with Sunday stumbles from contention at Quail Hollow (72) and the Players Championship (73).

“The Sundays I didn’t play well and didn’t win, that was kind of how I was playing the rest of the week,” said Woods, admitting Tuesday that neither his game nor his leg was 100 percent for the first part of this season. “A lot of those times [I did finish well] it was smoke and mirrors and making some putts or hitting a key shot at the right time.”

Though he did log some time on the range at the Masters, Quail Hollow and the Players Championship, his leg didn’t feel good enough for extensive post-round practice sessions until the Memorial. In typical fashion, he never hinted that there were fatigue or soreness issues at the time, perhaps because it was all part of his expected recovery and readjustment process.

“I feel great. Compared to [the way I felt at Bay Hill], it’s night and day,” Woods said. “Like everyone says, you think that after the surgery you feel so great six or eight months later. But everyone says just imagine what you’ll feel like in another six months. And I just keep getting better and better.

“I was able to start hitting more balls after a round at Memorial. I was able to have a practice session, not just hit a couple of balls. … To get better at this game, you have to put in the time. You can’t just think about it and just magically get better each and every day. You have to do the work.”

Focused on improving his driving accuracy, Woods also made wholesale changes to his bag at Memorial, returning to an old set of irons, ditching his 2-iron for a 5-wood and adding a shorter driver with an extra degree of loft (9.5 degrees to 10.5 degrees).

“As we all know, loft is your friend,” Woods said. “When I first came out here on tour, I used a 6.5-degree driver, and now I’m up to 10.5. I’d hate to see when I get to 40, how that’s going to be. I’ll probably have to get a 46-inch driver with 15 degrees of loft.”

The club tweaks and extensive range time paid dividends at Memorial, where he finished second in the field in driving accuracy (.875), hitting all 14 fairways during Sunday’s 65.

Now he’s back on a track suited to his combination of power and newfound accuracy. Given the forecast for rain on all four tournament days, Bethpage could play longer than its measurements (par 70, 7,426 yards) if the USGA decides to keep the tees back. That would give Woods another advantage in his quest to join Ben Hogan (1950-51) and Curtis Strange (1988-89) as the only back-to-back Open winners since World War II.

After his daunting display at Memorial, nobody in the field would bet against Woods pulling one step closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record haul of 18 majors.

Asked Tuesday whether he felt he could challenge Woods this week, Irish sensation Rory McIlroy said, “If he plays the way he played the last round at Memorial, then no.”

Entering the Memorial, Woods had been good enough with a deteriorating or recovering leg to record 15 straight top-10 finishes and eight victories dating nearly two years in stroke-play tournaments.

If the conquest at Memorial represents his return to 100 percent health and sharpness, golf could experience a whole new level of dominance.

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