Woods arrives for a tentative walk through Winged Foot | SummitDaily.com

Woods arrives for a tentative walk through Winged Foot

Tiger Woods hits an iron on five during a practice round for the U.S. Open golf championship, Monday, June 12, 2006, at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

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 III 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, where his putter failed him and he wound up in a tie 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 this was no different. Fans lined every fairway from tee to green, most of them holding out digital cameras, and fans scurried after him as he went into the clubhouse and later to the parking lot.

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 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 straight 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 Tillinghast design 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.

Henrik Stenson of Sweden might have had the right idea. He went all 18 holes on Monday carrying only his putter and a couple of golf balls, while his caddie carried a sand wedge. He walked the fairways, stopping occasionally to toss the balls into the rough ” yes, he found them ” and rolling a few putts on the green.

This is the first U.S. Open for the big-hitting Swede, and he knew what to expect.

“Always with this thick rough, you’ve got to hit the fairway,” he said. “That gives you the opportunity to somewhat attack the flag.”

But he must have wondered about the tiny shelf at the back left of the 18th green.

Stenson stuck a tee in the green and placed a ball on it for a guide, then tossed a few balls in the rough behind the green. He opened the blade and hit a baby flop that went about 3 feet, landed on the fringe and trickled to the hole, then by the hole, down the shelf and 30 feet away.

Stenson repeated this process a half-dozen times, aiming away from his target to the right, still to no avail.

Dean Wilson is playing in his third U.S. Open, and Winged Foot already looks like a much stronger test than Southern Hills in 2001 and Olympia Fields in 2003. He hit a few balls in the rough during his practice round Monday and had no trouble.

“I just picked it up and put it in the fairway,” Wilson said.

And then there was Angel Cabrera of Argentina, offering his assessment in Spanish between putts on the practice green.

“Movimiento” was his word for contoured greens, and Cabrera thought they were severe enough that three-putt bogeys (or worse) would not be the exception this week.

“What was Bethpage?” he asked, referring to the ’02 U.S. Open over on Long Island, where the cut was 10-over 150. “This is harder.”

Cabrera is one of the biggest hitters in golf, which should come in handy on a course that is 7,264 yards and features the first par 4 in U.S. Open that measures 500 yards, on No. 9. He spoke of hitting a drive that was “perfecto,” followed by a 5-iron that was “perfecto.” And that led to one of the few statements he offered in English.

“How does Fred Funk play that hole?” he said.

For now, most of the attention is on how Woods is playing, and he looked sharp during his nine holes Monday afternoon.

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