May 11 --Tiger Woods is back. But can he take it all the way back?
A month after completing arguably the greatest comeback in sports history by capturing his 15th major championship at the Masters, Woods arrives at the scene of one of the most impressive of his first 14 -- the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
It's the PGA Championship this time but the stage will be just as grand as it was then with rabid New York golf fans set to live up to their reputation just as they hope Woods lives up to his.
"I can't even imagine," said Tiger's caddie, Joe LaCava, a big time New York sports fan. "I think the atmosphere is going to be off the hook after winning the Masters."
It will be a spectacle. The PGA traditionally pairs the last three major winners the first two rounds so Woods will be going off with Brooks Koepka, whom he edged at the Masters, and Francesco Molinari, who pulled away from Tiger at last year's Open Championship.
Woods will be trying to replicate what he did 17 years ago at age 26 when he became the sixth player in history to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam. He won going away that rainy week, carrying a four-shot lead into Sunday after opening with rounds of 67-68. Even after uncharacteristic three-putt bogeys on the first two holes of the fourth round, Woods did was what was necessary to protect the lead. Sergio Garcia, his playing partner, faded early, and Phil Mickelson, in the group ahead, couldn't make enough putts. Woods, despite a closing bogey for a final round 72, finished as the only player in red numbers at 3-under, three shots clear of Mickelson, then 0-for-40 in the majors.
Even Garcia had to give Woods his due.
"Unfortunately, I didn't have the chance of seeing Jack Nicklaus play in his prime but I tell you one thing: it doesn't get much better than this. He's unbelievable," Garcia said.
Woods, of course, had already won the "Tiger Slam" by then, winning four straight majors between 2000 and 2001. With his seventh major win in his last 11 starts, the debate began to rage -- was he the best player of all time?
"I'm only 26. It's not like my career is finished," he said, deflecting any Golden Bear comparisons. "I have a long way to go and in that span of time I'm going to try to get better. This is what we all play for. I'm just living out a dream."
Tiger, however, acknowledged that no matter how many majors he'd end up winning, the Bethpage win would rank among his best.
"It's even more special to do it here in front of these fans at this facility. In view of what all New Yorkers have gone through recently (9/11), it makes it that much more special."
The PGA of America is hoping this one is just as special. Things couldn't have worked out better moving the tournament from August to May this year, making this year's PGA one the most anticipated ever.
"Obviously Tiger has the impact, sort of the moon landing. It's not golf; it's where were you when, kind of stuff," PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh said. "We really expect to have an amazing Championship at an amazing place and this couldn't be a better kind of story: Every Man's Country Club, Tiger, with his history, obviously having won there, as well."
Woods grew up on public tracks in Southern California and his father, Earl, first took up the game at Dyker Beach Golf Course when he was stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. When the USGA chose Bethpage Black as the 2002 U.S. Open site, it was bringing it for the first time to a place where the weekend hacker reigned supreme, even if it meant camping out in the parking lot overnight for a tee time.
The Black Course was a comeback story in itself, a reclamation project that grew out of USGA executive director David Fay's crazy idea that there was a great golf course hidden under what was then a veritable cow pasture. But one round with staffers in 1995 convinced Fay that if enough resources were thrown into it, A.W. Tillinghast's magnificent layout would rival any championship golf course in the world. Seven years later, the people's champion won the People's Open.
This time, he is definitely the people's favorite but is he the actual favorite? Koepka probably merits that distinction, having won, in Tiger-like fashion, three of his last 11 majors with eight top 10 finishes in his last 13 major starts. If not for a misread of the shifting winds on the 12th hole at Augusta and two missed birdie chances on 17 and 18, he would have been the story coming in.
Where Woods' distance advantage off the tee was even more of a premium on the wet fairways in 2002, Koepka's ability to overpower any golf course will be a huge factor if, as expected, showers make things a bit soggy.
Woods will also need better accuracy off the tee than he showed at the Masters, which offers more chances for recovery than any major. No one is going to win this tournament from the rough, as CBS analyst and five-time major winner Nick Faldo noted.
"Our expectations have to come down a notch or two for Bethpage," Faldo said.
Faldo's broadcast partner Jim Nance brought up the mental challenge Woods faces. He pulled out of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte because he didn't feel he was mentally or physically ready yet and this will be only the third time in his career he hasn't played in between majors. He'll also have to ward off a letdown like the one he suffered at the Ryder Cup the week after his breakthrough win at the Tour Championship last year.
"I'm not going to question his intensity or his ability to fight for every single shot. He's the best I've ever seen at that," Nance said. "But I just think the biggest problem for him is going to be just being back in the arena again this soon after a win that was as important to him as anything he's done in his life."
The Bethpage fans are sure to lift him if he needs it. He didn't need it in 2002.
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