Ron Cook: Woods' game shaping up as U.S. Open nears

Tiger is making major strides

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THE MEMORIAL, DUBLIN, Ohio -- Veteran K.J. Choi proved to be a deserving champion at the Memorial yesterday with six clutch one-putt greens on the back nine, including five for par saves, holding off young Ryan Moore by one skinny stroke. But that's not what's important with the 107th U.S. Open just 10 days away. This is: "Today was something I needed to have on the greens," Tiger Woods said. "I hit so many good putts."

It will be a very confident Woods who shows up at Oakmont Country Club today for a final practice day before Open week.

"That's all I need," Woods said.

There can't be more chilling words to the other players.

The Man says he will be ready to go.

Sure, there are plenty of intriguing questions heading into the Open, the championship every golfer -- at least every American golfer -- wants to win. Will Phil Mickelson's left wrist hold up after it forced him to withdraw from the Memorial after 11 holes in the first round Thursday? We could know more this week; Mickelson has talked of still competing in the Stanford St. Jude Championship in Memphis, unlikely as that seems. Will Masters champion Zach Johnson have his strength and be 100 percent after also picking up Thursday in the Memorial because of strep throat? The guess here is yes. Will Jim Furyk, the world's third-ranked player, put it all together and win his second Open? "I think Oakmont is a good course for me," said Furyk, who keeps the ball in play and out of the blasted rough better than just about anyone. And, of local interest, will Rocco Mediate get to play in front of the hometown fans? That one will be answered later today when he tries to secure one of 24 Open spots in a 36-hole sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio.

But all of those story lines seem irrelevant compared to this one: What is Tiger's state of mind going to Oakmont?

"I feel like I've progressed nicely this week, which is what I wanted to do," Woods said.

It didn't show so much on the leader board on an ideal weekend for low scores with high humidity, soft greens, no wind and no furrowed bunkers, although Woods did have a sweet 5-under 67 yesterday, a final round trumped only by Choi (65) and four others, including Mediate (65). Woods and Mediate were among those who finished in a tie for 15th place at 9-under 279, eight shots back of Choi, this after Woods gave the rest of the golf world hope by winding up a dismal 37th in his previous tournament, The Players.

But it took only one look at Woods' pearly whites yesterday to realize he believes his game is approaching Open shape at just the right time. (Is it just me or does he have the brightest, whitest teeth in all of sports?) His improved putting was the big thing and did wonders for his mood. Shaky putting killed him at The Players and knocked him out of the hunt at the Memorial Friday and Saturday when he needed 31 putts in each of rounds 2 and 3. But he had just 26 yesterday despite missing a 6-footer for birdie on No. 18, "the only bad putt I hit."

Woods' ball-striking and ball-control also were much better yesterday. "Actually, I was able to start placing the ball on the correct side of the fairways and give myself the angles I wanted into the greens, which I hadn't done," he said. "I drove it pretty good the rest of the week, but not like I did today."

We'll see if Woods can carry it all over to the Open. If you had to bet on one player to win our national championship, of course you would pick him. He's the best in the world for a reason, a three-time winner on the PGA tour this year and a winner of two U.S. Opens, 12 majors in all.

But Woods is doing all he can to leave nothing to chance. That's why he'll be back at Oakmont today instead of at home in Florida with his pregnant wife, Elin. He played 54 holes at Oakmont April 22-23, but that was before the rough had grown to brutal heights and the greens were up to the Open's punishing standards. He wants one more look, one more good day of work.

I can't get those words out of my head.

That's all I need ...

You can't get it out of your head, either?

Imagine how it's playing in Mickelson's head and Johnson's and Furyk's.


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