Tiger Woods

Some past U.S. Open Champions carry a lot of baggage to Pebble Beach.

The struggles of three-time winner Tiger Woods have been well documented. After terrorizing the PGA Tour, including a record 15-stroke show of force at the 2000 U.S.Open held at Pebble Beach Golf Links, he suffered through personal problems and a series of injuries that took him out of the game.

Graeme McDowell’s fall has been less public. The last player to win a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach—in 2010—he went through ups and downs, before slipping to 144th in FedEx Cup points in 2018, and almost losing his full tour card. And as he slumped, his chances to earn a spot at the 2019 Open Championship in his home town in Northern Ireland faded.

Yet now both return to the location of their greatest triumphs with expectations for a good showing renewed.

“Four or five months ago if you’d told me ‘you’re on the first tee with Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson’—where my game was and my confidence was—I would have been very intimidated,” McDowell says.

But at the end of March, McDowell won the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship. Maybe it wasn’t the most prestigious tournament, but it marked his fourth time atop a PGA Tour leaderboard. And last week he tied for 8th at the Canadian Open.

More importantly, the Canadian Open top ten put him in the field at Royal Portrush.

Meanwhile in April, as throngs of supporters watched, Woods edged Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepke and Xander Schauffele to claim the green jacket and his fifth Masters crown.

“In Augusta I was right where I needed to be,” Woods says. His health is often a week-to-week or even day-to-day question. He failed to make the cut at the next tour event, but that did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for the Open. “This week I feel like I’m trending in the right direction.”

Both played nine holes on Tuesday, with Woods taking some additional time on the range. He explains that he is reacquainting himself with the tricks poa annua grass plays on the greens.

The course is still playing soft, but that will change for the championship rounds. The rough is noticeably tangled and par has been reduced by 1 stroke to 71.

McDowell believes holes 8, 9 and 10—the famed “Cliffs of Doom”—will play a pivotal role over the tournament, which opens Thursday.

“There’s nothing like playing a U.S. Open set up at Pebble Beach,” Woods says. “Man, is it tricky.”

Still, it wasn’t that long ago that such optimism had been sapped from both former champions. Woods endured a combined eight back and knee injuries. The PGA Tour website even maintains a “complete list of Tiger Woods injuries” page.

Woods says he hasn’t lost any distance since 2000, although his body is not the same. (And, he adds, “I’m playing against kids born after I won the damn tournament.)

“If I feel good, I feel like I can play any venue,” Woods explains. “What’s important to me is I’m back playing again. Now golf brings me so much joy.”

For McDowell, the drop in world rankings shattered his composure.

“Confidence goes away faster than it comes back,” he observes. “I took my eye off the ball.”

Now both feel they are in condition to compete come Thursday.

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