SAN FRANCISCO - Even though Friday marks the four-year anniversary of the last of his 14 major championships, Tiger Woods isn’t hitting the panic button just yet as his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 remains stuck in neutral.
“Well, Jack did it at 46, right?’’ Woods said, referring to the final major Nicklaus won, the 1986 Masters. “So I’ve got 10 [years]. [Tom] Watson almost pulled it off at 59.
“It can be done. We can play for a very long time. That’s the great thing about staying in shape and lifting weights and being fit, is that the playing careers have extended.’’
Woods comes into this week’s US Open the same way he did the Masters - off a victory. His two-shot victory at the Memorial tied Nicklaus for second on the PGA Tour’s all-time wins list with 73, and established Woods as the betting favorite this week.
He’ll be paired in the first two rounds with Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson but doesn’t expect a lot of chit-chat. Nothing personal, Woods insisted.
“I don’t think we’re going to talk about a lot,’’ he said. “This is a major championship; we’ve got work to do. It’s such a test playing in this championship. This is one of those championships that I think the guys talk the least to one another because it’s so difficult.’’
Said Mickelson of the pairing: “It’s fabulous. I get excited to play with Tiger, I love it.
“The one player I’m most concerned about if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me is Tiger.’’
Woods would love to get major No. 15 near where he spent his college years at Stanford. It might finally stop the questions about whether he is back. Then again, he said, maybe not.
“I think even if I do win a major championship, it will still be, ‘You’re not to 18 yet,’ or, ‘When will you get to 19?’ It’s always something with you guys,’’ Woods said. “I’ve dealt with that my entire career, ever since I was an amateur. It hasn’t changed.’’
A drop of history
Jack Fleck owns one of the biggest upsets in US Open history, beating Ben Hogan for the 1955 title at the Olympic Club, the first time it held the event. Fleck is here this week, and the US Golf Association brought from its museum in Far Hills, N.J., the putter Fleck used in 1955, wanting him to re-create the 7-foot birdie he made on No. 18 that forced an 18-hole playoff, which he won the next day by three shots.
When Fleck reached the 18th green, he immediately - and correctly - noted that it’s not the same as it was in 1955. The back-to-front slope has been flattened.
A temporary cup was placed approximately where the hole was during the final round in ’55, and Fleck’s ball spotted accordingly. Using his old putter, he missed on his first try - “see, it doesn’t break the same,’’ Fleck said - but was true with the second. And the third.
At 90, Fleck still plays, and he can still putt when the moment at Olympic calls for it.
I hate the 80s
Masters champion Bubba Watson is 99th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, which could pose a problem this week, with Olympic’s narrow fairways. What’s more, they’re firm and they slope, so a ball that lands in the fairway might not stay there.
Watson’s best US Open finish is a tie for fifth in 2007, at Oakmont, a course he said was the toughest he’s ever seen. He’s not as enamored of Olympic.
“Do I like it? I’ll tell you in a few days,’’ Watson said. “I don’t want to come out here and shoot 80. As of right now I don’t like it. There’s an 80 lurking.’’
The marquee grouping of Woods, Mickelson, and Watson start their first rounds at 10:33 a.m. EST Thursday, with ESPN’s coverage not starting until noon. Fear not, though. The US Golf Association’s tournament website (usopen.com) and its mobile application will provide live-streaming HD coverage of the pairing from the minute they tee off. ESPN will also offer full-round coverage of two featured groups during first- and second-round play on its multiple digital platforms. The early group Thursday will be Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, and Adam Scott (11:33 a.m. EST start time), and the afternoon group will be Rickie Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa, and Dustin Johnson (4:58 p.m.). Trey Wingo will anchor the special featured group coverage, which will include David Duval as an analyst . . . Rory McIlroy, who was scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Tuesday night’s Giants game, at the prospect of getting booed if he bounced it to the plate: “I definitely would rather get booed at a baseball game than on a golf course. I don’t know whether to play it conservatively and just lob it into his hand, or go for the fast one. I’m not sure.’’