Originally created 06/14/06

Rust not a worry for Tiger



MAMARONECK, N.Y. - For nine weeks Tiger Woods has been all about living and dying.

He celebrated the wedding of his friend and caddie. He dove head first off the world's highest bungee-jumping bridge. He won a car race.

Then he came home and said goodbye to his father, Earl Woods, and mourned the death of the most influential man in his life.

About the last thing the world's greatest golfer thought about during the latest life-altering chapter was golf. For more than a month after he walked off his most prominent stage at the Masters Tournament, a club was never something Woods reached for as therapy.

"I really had no desire to get back to the game of golf," Woods said Tuesday. "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."

Inevitably Woods moved on and got back to work. He arrived for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot awash in the lessons his late father taught him.

"I had so many great memories of dad ... things that I had kind of forgotten about," Woods said. "But since I was out there practicing alone, it would come back to me. It always put a smile on my face."

For the past 30 years, Earl Woods offered his son many things that made him the golfer he is. Woods can tick off all the lessons that started with a father-son relationship - grip, posture, stance, alignment, fearlessness. What was the most enduring gift from his greatest coach?

"Love," Woods said without hesitation.

For so much of his career, Tiger has been portrayed as something beyond ordinary. His accomplishments have taken on a supernatural aura.

But dealing with a dying parent and enduring the same emotions anyone would face under the circumstances has made Woods seem more human. That was never more obvious than in the wealth of support and well-wishes he received from colleagues and fans after his father's death last month. The sentiment moved the man often described as unflappable.

"It's been really eye-opening," Woods said of the e-mails, letters and phone calls he received. "All the support has made things so much easier for all of us, and I can't thank everyone enough for that because I've never experienced anything like it."

Experiencing life is something Woods relishes. Some might consider it folly that he has jumped out of an airplane, gone swimming in shark cages or engaged in the dangerous thrill of underwater spelunking. Even his father, a former Special Forces military hero, questioned his son's taste for adventure.

"I had to do it; why would you do it?" Earl asked his son last month when he returned from a thrill-seeking trip to New Zealand.

"I enjoy that part of life," Woods said. "I love every day of living life to its fullest."

And so Woods comes to Winged Foot, where his enduring quest to prove his father's faith in his greatness resumes on a course many remember for the most poignant of fatherly tributes. The last major contested here, the 1997 PGA Championship, was won by Davis Love III. His passionate relationship with his late teaching pro father was forever captured under a rainbow.

LOVE CERTAINLY UNDERSTANDS what Woods is going through.

"Obviously Tiger is going to be in the same boat as me; every time he goes to play golf he'll think of his father," Love said. "That's not going to change. It's going to be hard for a while, but it's also a positive for him down the road."

Woods' concept of "down the road" is never very long. Though he's never rallied from behind to win any of his 10 majors, Woods has a history of strong comebacks. Twice before in his career he has taken extensive layoffs and each time he made immediate triumphant returns at the Buick Invitational.

Still, his toughest rival won't rule Woods out this week.

"I've never seen a tournament where he has not been prepared to win ... unfortunately," said Phil Mickelson, the world's No. 2 ranked player coming off consecutive major wins at the PGA and Masters. "I would expect him to be 100 percent."

Woods has the same expectations. While some golfers prefer to play their way into peak form before major championships, Woods is different.

"I've always practiced my way into shape," he said.

So Woods has done nothing but practice the past couple of weeks as the U.S. Open approached. He didn't believe a tune-up would serve him well considering it would require another week of rehashing his father's life and death. He chose to rip the Band-Aid off his grief in one fell swoop.

"I've had plenty of time to get ready," Woods said. "I just didn't feel that I was ready to deal with all this and also try to prepare for the Open. I'd much rather kind of deal with it all at once and get it over with."

BY THURSDAY, WOODS will step to the tee and do what comes natural. He says "hitting a golf ball around is actually the easy part."

"I'm here to compete and try to win this championship, and all my energy goes toward that," he said. "I know that dad would still want me to go out there and grind it out and give it my best. And that's what I always do."

With Sunday being Father's Day, could Woods script another emotional tribute at Winged Foot?

"It is what it is," Woods said of the day he often spent playing golf with his father and sitting down to watch U.S. Opens before he started winning them. "I've got three days to hopefully play good golf and put myself in position to where I can win the championship."

Even a little rusty, Woods believes he has what it takes to capture his 11th major title.

If there is a formula for winning a U.S. Open on course setups often regarded as the ultimate tests, Woods says the key ingredient was passed down from his father.

"Heart," said the two-time U.S. Open champion. "Because you're going to go through periods where it's just tough. It tests every bit of you. But if you've got heart, you're going to be all right."

Woods has been tested by tough realities lately, and his heart has never been more exposed. After all he's been through, his heart seems to be in the right place at Winged Foot.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.