Originally created 06/13/06

Treacherous course looms as Woods makes his return



MAMARONECK, N.Y. - The U.S. Open didn't start Monday, it only felt that way.

Tiger Woods caught the gallery by surprise when he teed off for a practice round a half-hour late and on the other side of the golf course, but there was no mistaking the buzz that followed him through a corridor of fans and onto the first tee at Winged Foot.

And the shot looked familiar, too.

"People were genuinely glad to see him, and so was I," said Jeff Sluman, who played the front nine with Woods, Charles Howell and Bo Van Pelt. "It was good to see him step on the first tee ... and hit a 340-yard drive."

It was the first time Woods has been at any golf tournament since Sunday afternoon at the Masters Tournament, where his putter failed him and he tied for third. He returns from the longest layoff of his career - nine weeks - brought on by the May 3 death of his father, knowing what makes this major so special for all players is that it traditionally ends on Father's Day.

There is big excitement whenever Woods is at a major, particularly the U.S. Open and PGA Championship because they move around the country, and Monday was no different.

As for the game?

"He was playing as you would expect," Sluman said. "There's no rust in his game. If he drives it straight, he'll win the golf tournament. And if he doesn't, he'll have a hell of a chance to win. But that's nothing that hasn't already been said."

Masters champion Phil Mickelson will have a say in that, coming into Winged Foot with a green jacket and high hopes of adding the second leg of the Grand Slam, not to mention his third consecutive major. Also emerging as a renewed threat is Vijay Singh after he won the Barclays Classic at nearby Westchester Country Club on Sunday.

But that can wait. The first job for Woods and everyone else was getting a handle on Winged Foot, where the fairways are lined by deep, dense grass and trees, and the back of the greens look as though they are operated by hydraulic jacks.

It's the first time the U.S. Open has returned to this course since 1984, and the trepidation by some players Monday was reminiscent of the infamous "Massacre at Winged Foot" in 1974, when Hale Irwin won without breaking par in any of the four rounds.

Former PGA champion Rich Beem was killing time waiting to tee off, rapping a few putts on the practice green, when he told caddie Bill Heim he was going for quick bite to eat. "Then we'll go take our punishment," Beem added.