Published June 11, 2013
ARDMORE, Pa. – The photo of Ben Hogan hitting his 1-iron into the 18th green at Merion in the 1950 U.S. Open is among the most famous in golf history, capturing the pure swing one of the greatest players when the pressure of a major championship was at its peak.
Instead of marveling at the swing, Woods thought more about the results.
"That was to get into a playoff," Woods said Tuesday, sounding more like a golf historian than the No. 1 player in the game. "Got about 40 feet and still had some work to do. It's a great photo. But it would have been an all right photo if he didn't win. He still had to go out and win it the next day."
Hogan managed to lag the long putt to about 4 feet and quickly knocked that in for his par to join a three-way playoff, which he won the next day over Lloyd Mangrum and Tom Fazio. Of his four U.S. Open titles, that meant the most to Hogan because he proved he could win just 16 months after a horrific car accident that nearly killed him. On battered legs, Hogan had to play the 36-hole final, followed by the 18-hole playoff.
"Knowing the fact that he went through the accident and then came out here and played 36 and 18, that's awfully impressive," Woods said.
In some small way, Woods can relate.
Five years ago, Woods tried to play the U.S. Open with the ligaments shredded in his left knee and a double stress fracture in his lower left leg. The USGA published a book called 'Great Moments of the U.S. Open," and the photo it selected for the cover showed Woods arching his back and pumping his fists after making a 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines to get into a playoff.
It wouldn't have been much of a photo if he missed.
Woods had to go 91 holes that week. He had to make another birdie on the 18th hole of the playoff to go extra holes before finally beating Rocco Mediate.
"I think there was a lot of people pulling for Tiger," said Rory McIlroy, who was 19 at the time, a rookie on the European Tour who failed to qualify for the U.S. Open. "He was playing on a broken leg pretty much, so I was definitely pulling for Tiger. It was probably one of the best performances golf has ever seen, if not sport in general."
Hard as it might have been to believe that day, it also was the last major Woods won.
He had one more chance at a major after his season-ending knee surgery, losing a two-shot lead to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship. After two darks years brought on by the collapse of his marriage and more injuries to his left leg, he had at least a share of the 36-hole lead in two majors last year, and he had an outside shot at the Masters in April going into the final round.
Majors don't come as easily as they once seemed to for Woods, though he never looked at them that way.
"It wasn't ever easy," he said. "I felt it was still difficult because the major of the majors, three of the four always rotated. It was always on a new site each and every year. Augusta was the only one you could rely on from past experiences. A lot of majors that I won were on either the first or second time I'd ever seen it."
Woods won four majors on courses he had never played — Medinah for the 1999 PGA Championship, Valhalla for the PGA Championship the following year, Bethpage Black in the 2002 U.S. Open and Royal Liverpool for the 2006 British Open.
Merion is new not only to him, but just about everyone.
It last hosted a U.S. Open in 1981, when David Graham putted for birdie on every hole and closed with a 67. Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker played Merion, but they were all college kids at the 1989 U.S. Amateur. A few others competed in the 2005 U.S. Amateur or the 2009 Walker Cup.
But never at a U.S. Open.
"I don't remember much about it from that long ago," Stricker said. "But I remember at least that it was a great, old course with a lot of history to it, one that I enjoyed playing back in '89 and no different than today. It's a great test."
It figures to be a different test this week.
For all the history of Merion, this week seems like a recurrence of the troublesome weather that has followed the PGA Tour around this season. The course has received some 5 inches of rain since Friday, so much that it was closed for practice one day on the weekend, and play was stopped three times on Monday.
It was packed under mostly sunny skies Tuesday in what amounted to a crash course for so many players with the start of the U.S. Open only two days away.
"Played the golf course last Wednesday, which has proved kind of invaluable now," Graeme McDowell said. "I flew in yesterday with the intention of playing 18 holes late last night, but that didn't happen. So I'm kind of adjusting my plan here at the minute. I'm going to play nine holes this afternoon and nine holes tomorrow."
Phil Mickelson spent two days at Merion last week, which also proved invaluable. He left town Monday for San Diego to practice in California's dry weather, though he was planning on being home Wednesday, anyway, to watch his oldest daughter speak at her eighth-grade graduate ceremony.
Woods stopped at Merion on the way to the Memorial, and wondered how much he got out of that practice round. It rained practically the entire time, so the ball wasn't flying very far in the air or when it hit the ground. Woods was trying to figure out how much the ball would run along the canted fairways in dry conditions.
Now, he might not find out.
"I thought it might be totally different," Woods said. "As I explained at Memorial, I thought the ball would be running out and we would hit different clubs and different shapes. But it's going to be the same as what we played" in his practice round two weeks ago.
Woods already has forgotten about his last start, an abysmal finish at the Memorial where he couldn't make a putt and wound up 20 shots out the lead. He said he had a good week of practice at home in Florida until some tropical weather came through.
"I guess it was getting us ready for this one," he said.
The preparation is all part of the plan. Woods talked about going to other major courses ahead of time to map out his strategy and get a feel for how to play the course.
"But then I have to go out and execute," he said. "And go out and win an event."