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Talking Tiger: Azinger, Strange assess his game, chances
Updated 6/14/2012 6:18 AM ET
SAN FRANCISCO — Tiger Woods last won a major championship four years ago this week, a stirring run on a broken left leg that eventually sidelined him for eight months.

Since then he's 0-for-11 in majors and seen his world change. The question for years had been when will Tiger win another major. Then the question became if. With two PGA Tour victories in the past three months, is Tiger ready to break through again in this week's U.S. Open?

"There's a lot of fight in Tiger Woods," says Curtis Strange, the last to win back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1988 and '89. "You need that to win in a U.S. Open."

MORE: Other key groupings to watch COLUMN: Rory McIlroy strikes a balance PHOTOS: Best images from the U.S. Open

Strange and Paul Azinger, who won the 1993 PGA Championship, will offer analysis for ESPN during the Open, but first they sat down with USA TODAY Sports at The Olympic Club to talk all things Tiger.

In a perch overlooking the 18th hole, Azinger and Strange addressed Woods' comeback, swing, mental game, California roots and his chance of winning his fourth U.S. Open.

"I wrote down a few years ago when I knew the Open was going to be here, that this course was going to hit Tiger right in the sweet spot," Azinger says.

Between the ears

Before his world turned upside down after a late-night car crash in 2009, Woods was hailed as having one of the best minds the game has ever seen. He was a strategic mastermind with his plan of attack, rarely putting himself in position to make a big mistake to cost him a tournament. He knew his red shirt on Sunday was intimidating, he handled the circus that followed him constantly, and when he needed it most, he willed the ball into the hole.

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His fierce mentality hasn't been the same since returning to the game. This is especially true, critics say, when it comes to his putting. Those 6-footers he used to bang in were suddenly turning into two putts. His short game from off the green went wayward, his comebacks halted by one bad hole.

"The difference between Tiger and everyone else was his physical strength and his ability to go into a place somewhere — I don't even know what it's called — in his mindset," Azinger says. "But there has to be a conversion of the physical and the mental. And I think he's back to where he once was. He's swinging it great, he's winning, and he just has that look he used to have. And who's going to be more confident this week than Tiger Woods?"

By Michael Clevenger, The Courier-Journal

Paul Azinger


The stats: Azinger, 52, won 12 times during his PGA Tour career and finished runner-up 13 times. His biggest win was the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness Club in Toledo.


Claim to fame: Azinger, also an ESPN golf analyst, captained the USA to a Ryder Cup triumph in 2008, without Tiger Woods, to end a streak of three consecutive European victories.

Strange isn't as confident as Azinger when it comes to Woods' confidence.

"I don't think, in his own mind, he is totally confident. I just don't think so," Strange says. "He's already won twice this year, but he hasn't contended a few other times, and that's unlike Tiger. I think for him to feel, 'Damn it, the red shirt means something again,' for him and the rest of the world to think he is back, he needs to win a major.

"But what was does back mean? Is he back to where he was in 2000, 2001? No, he'll never get back there. For one, he's older. His life has changed, he's a father now, he's dealing with being a single parent, and he's dealing with a new swing. There are a lot of changes he's dealing with. But is he back to where he can contend regularly and intimidate people? Almost."

The new Tiger

Woods is currently working on his fourth major reconstruction of his swing since turning pro. Some people have liked the changes he's made with Sean Foley, others haven't.

By Darren Carroll, Getty Images

Curtis Strange


The stats: Strange, 57, won 17 times during his PGA Tour career. The biggest of those wins came at the U.S. Open, twice, in 1988 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and in 1989 at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.


Claim to fame: Strange, who is part of ESPN’s golf broadcast team, is the last man to win the U.S. Open in back-to-back years.

"I like the swing changes," Azinger says. "His left wrist isn't as bowed at the top as it used to be, his head doesn't drop as much, and there is a tremendous amount of velocity through the hit now. He doesn't appear to be tentative in any way."

Azinger also sees a change in attitude with Woods since his famous drop-kick of the 9-iron on the 16th hole in the Masters.

"I believe Augusta was a turning point for him. He lost his temper there and he was called out on it," Azinger says. "I think Geoff Ogilvy said it best: Tiger has the worst temper on Tour. But he controls it the best. He hasn't controlled it the best during his comeback, but I think that changed at Augusta."

"I can sympathize with being frustrated with what he's gone through," Strange says. "But from what I've seen this year, I've liked everything I've seen with what he's trying to do with the golf club. As time passes, he will be more comfortable on the stage in front of people with that swing."

The missing par-5s

Historically, Woods has devoured par-5s, routinely picking up shots on the field on the longest holes on the course. Ten of his 14 wins in majors have come on courses that feature four par-5s. This week, however, there are only two par-5s — the 670-yard 16th and uphill, 522-yard 17th. The last time the U.S. Open was played at Olympic, in 1998, Woods was 4 under on the par-5s and 13 over on the other holes.

"There is virtually only one par-5 here this week because No. 16 is so hard and so long it's really a par-5½," Strange says. "It's not a birdie hole. So that takes a little bit of an advantage away from Tiger because he dominates par-5s.

"You have to have a different mindset because you are usually playing a par-72 course and you know you can pick up shots on the par-5s."

"That's a great call, Curtis," Azinger says. "But the whole field has to face that. The numbers Tiger has put up on par-5s are mind-boggling numbers. But he'll adapt. You can't come in here to a U.S. Open with any kind of attitude of discontent. You can't have an animosity about the setup or you're beat. Jack Nicklaus said that a long time ago, that most of the guys were beat before the U.S. Open started. Tiger won't be beat before his first tee shot on Thursday.

Knowing the course

As a student at Stanford from 1994-96, Woods played an abundance of practice and team qualifying rounds at Olympic.

"I think it's only going to help him," Azinger says. "The changes they made to the course since then weren't really to the layout. They made it longer. But overall, who is going to know this course off the tee better than Tiger? Nobody. Who's going to know the lay of the land better than Tiger? Nobody.

Strange agrees.

"By adding the distance they only changed the club you'll hit off the tee," he says. "The players will put it in the same spot off the tee. And because of that the familiarity of this golf course is huge. It is a local knowledge golf course — the uphill, sidehill, downhill lies, the reading of the greens. And he knows where to miss it. When you miss a green it's not going to be an easy up-and-down, so you are going to have to work very hard to salvage pars this week. When you're playing well, it's easier to hit greens. If you're a tad off, you have to know where to miss with your approach shot.

"Tiger knows that as well as anyone."

"That's a great call," Azinger says. "And I think Tiger really likes this golf course. And not everyone likes this golf course. It's a beast. I think he has a huge edge. I can just see it in his eyes."

California roots

Woods was born in Cypress, played high school golf at Western High in Anaheim, and was the 1996 NCAA individual champion while attending Stanford. As a pro, he's won 13 PGA Tour titles, including the 2000 and 2008 U.S. Opens, in the Golden State, tied with Florida for the most wins in any state. Now living in Florida, Woods still feels right at home in California.

"Playing in California totally means something," Azinger says. "I grew up on the East Coast. So did Curtis. The grass is different, the greens are different. Tiger knows how to play at sea level, he knows how to play when it's 55 degrees on Thursday morning and knows what it feels like. It's a big difference. It's déjà vu all over again for this guy."

Strange does agree with Azinger about the weather.

"But I disagree about the greens," he says. "Because when you come to California for an Open, the main difference are the poa annua greens. Tiger loves putting on poa because you have to be aggressive to putt those greens well. Now the greens at Olympic have been changed to bentgrass, and it's just like an East Coast green. So take that out of the equation."

The Mickelson factor

Woods is grouped with Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson in the first two rounds. Woods regularly got the better of Mickelson in years past when the two went head-to-head in a pairing. Lately, however, Mickelson has won seven of the last 11 mano a mano meetings, including a final-round 64-75 rout as he won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-am in February.

"Tiger will have a chip on his shoulder for what happened at Pebble Beach," Azinger says. "Although he will obsess his own game, deep down inside there will be something in there that will tell him if Phil is ahead of him."

Strange isn't quite sure about that.

"I have mixed feelings, because we saw that happen with Jack (Nicklaus) and Arnie (Palmer) sometimes, and they admitted that when they went head-to-head they tried to beat each other so much neither one of them played well," Strange says. "So you might see that with Tiger and Phil on Thursday and Friday, but I don't think it will happen because this is the U.S. Open. There is too much at stake, and Olympic is too hard to worry about your opponent."

Why Tiger won't win this week

"He won't win if he doesn't have the convergence of the physical and the mental that he displayed his whole career and displayed at Bay Hill and Muirfield Village when he won this year," Azinger says. "And he has been inconsistent this year."

Strange thinks Woods won't win if the putter doesn't behave.

"I've thought a lot about this, the way you play this golf course and what it demands out of you. No. 1, there is only one par-5, so that takes some of his advantage away," Strange says. "And No. 2, he has to putt well to play the par-3s and par-4s well, so if he doesn't have a good putting week, he won't win."

Why Tiger will win this week

"He will win because of local knowledge, confidence and his work ethic," Azinger says.

"All of those things and his current form," Strange says. "He's playing well. That makes a big, big difference."

Posted 6/13/2012 5:28 PM ET
Updated 6/14/2012 6:18 AM ET
Tiger Woods hopes to win his fourth U.S. Open this week at The Olympic Club.
By David Marshall, USA TODAY
Tiger Woods hopes to win his fourth U.S. Open this week at The Olympic Club.

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