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U.S. Open: Tiger faces tough test to repeat

FARMINGDALE, N.Y - Tiger Woods began his final practice round of the U.S. Open by hitting a 5-wood for his second shot on a par 4, which is rare for someone with his power. Stranger still was that it wasn't enough club to reach the 10th green.

The stubborn side of the defending champion showed up on the 15th fairway at Bethpage Black. Staring toward the elevated green, he backed off his shot and turned to his caddie as if to change clubs, then decided to stick with the 4-iron already in his hands. Woods hit it pure, and when the ball barely reached the green, he laughed.

'I've already hit too many 3-irons on par 4s today,' he said.

The scorecard at Bethpage Black shows an additional 212 yards from 2002, when Woods was the only player to finish under par and won the U.S. Open by three shots over Phil Mickelson.

With soggy turf and rain part of every forecast, the Black feels even longer.

'This is probably the most difficult golf course we've faced from tee to green,' Woods said Tuesday. 'Obviously, it's not the green complexes this week - certainly not Oakmont, or it's not Winged Foot. But from tee to green, this golf course is all you want. With the weather coming in here this week, it's only going to get longer and harder. And it's going to be even more difficult.'

And that could be right up his alley.

Woods has been on the fast track in the majors for as long as he has been a pro, and more history could await this week.

The U.S. Open is the only major he has failed to win in consecutive years, and a victory this week would make him only the seventh player to win back-to-back. Having won at Bethpage Black in 2002, he will try to join Willie Anderson (1905 at Myopia Hunt) as the only players to defend a U.S. Open on a course where they were the most recent champion.

Add to that Woods' 65 in the final round to win the Memorial two weeks ago, and he is an overwhelming favorite.

'He's by far and away the favorite, I would have thought,' Geoff Ogilvy said. 'But I don't think anyone walks around saying, 'We're playing for second now because Tiger's playing.' I think everyone appreciates how good he is, knows he's going to be in contention and hopes to get there with him.'

The question leading into the U.S. Open, which starts Thursday, is how many have a realistic chance.

And the answer lies as much with Mike Davis, the USGA official setting up the golf course, as it does Woods, Ogilvy, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey or anyone else on top of his game this week.

Seven years ago, the USGA was far more stubborn about its reputation as the 'toughest test in golf.' Officials marked each tee box and wouldn't stray more than 5 yards from that in either direction.

Davis is known to adjust tees by as much as 40 yards depending on the conditions and the weather. Because the fairways are so soft and the course is playing long, he might move the tees up to give more players a chance.

Three of the par 4s are longer than 500 yards, and one of them - the 525-yard seventh - is longer than one par 5.

There was a time when the U.S. Open mainly demanded accuracy off the tee, which would make it easier to keep the ball on the firm greens. But that might not apply this week. That was the prototype of a U.S. Open champion.

'When you normally go to that, you're thinking of somebody who is relatively straight,' British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington said. 'And usually, relatively straight means relatively short. And, obviously, that's not going to work this week.'

Ogilvy found himself hitting fairway metals, 3-iron and 4-iron into most of the par 4s. It was far different from when he played two weeks ago in dry conditions, and the ball rolled down the fairway.

Ditto for Woods, who played a practice round last week after winning the Memorial.

'I don't feel like I've gotten any shorter since 2002,' he said. 'But, man, I'm just wearing out my long irons.'

The scorecard never lies, but the yardage cannot always be trusted. Remember, Torrey Pines was the longest course in U.S. Open history last year at 7,643 yards, but with a combination of dry weather and moving tees forward, it played much shorter.

That's where this chance for a repeat started for Woods.

In a victory no less spectacular even a year later, he won his 14th major by playing on only one good leg. Ligaments in his left knee were shredded, and Woods had a double stress fracture in his left leg, but still managed to beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff before having surgery a week later that ended his season.

He is feeling better than ever, with two victories in seven starts. He is on a course where he feels at home. Even so, Woods says there is a reason why Curtis Strange (1988-89) and Ben Hogan (1950-51) are the only U.S. Open champions to repeat in the last 70 years.

'You have to have every facet of your game going,' Woods said. 'Generally, this is the hardest major we face year in and year out.'

Woods went wire to wire in 2002 at Bethpage, opening with a 67 and expanding that lead to four shots going into the final round. No one got within two of him, although Mickelson made a spirited run on the back nine.

Mickelson's play will be a mystery this week. He decided only recently to play after disclosing his wife, Amy, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. He spent Tuesday morning - his 39th birthday - home in San Diego and was to fly to New York later in the day.