LONDON: Tiger Woods will probably come under even more scrutiny than usual when he launches his US Open title defence at Olympia Fields Country Club next week.
The world number one, who clinched last year's US Open by three shots at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, has not won a major title since then and his aura of invincibility has taken more than a few knocks in recent months.
Although he remains the game's best player by some distance, his intimidation factor does not appear to be at the level it was 12 months ago and knee surgery last December has forced him to reduce his playing schedule more than usual this season.
Remarkably, Woods managed to win three times in four starts when he returned to the PGA Tour earlier this year but he has played in only four tournaments since then with a solitary top-10 finish.
The doubts began to surface when he failed to clinch an unprecedented third consecutive US Masters title in April, having surged into contention with a brilliant third-round 66.
A poor decision to use a driver on the third tee at Augusta National on the last day cost him an ugly double-bogey six, and ultimately any chance of going on to seal victory. He battled to a 75 and had to settle for a share of 15th.
Since his forgettable day in Georgia, he has tied for 29th at the European Tour's Deutsche Bank Open in Germany and, more encouragingly, shared fourth at the Memorial on Sunday, when he was clearly boosted by a closing 65.
Woods still has his doubters but the world number one believes he is close to his best form as he prepares for next week's US Open, the second major championship of the year.
“I went out there and hit the ball just as flush as I have been hitting it,” he said, after his final-round 65 at the Memorial elevated him from 16th into a share of fourth with Vijay Singh.
“I hit a few putts and got on a roll. I had one bad stretch of holes that put me out of contention to win. My goal today was to play the same way I had been playing. I did that.
“I played the same way in Germany. I played the same I would here. Unfortunately, I had nine holes that put me out of the tournament.”
Woods added that all he needed before arriving at Olympic Fields outside Chicago was a few more practice sessions to get his swing to “where I need to have it.”
“Things are starting to show some real positive signs and I am pleased about that,” he said.
Much has changed, though, since he triumphed wire-to-wire at Bethpage last year for his seventh major title in his last 11 starts.
At that point, he was mentally head and shoulders above his closest challengers – players like Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Singh and David Duval.
He bounced back from a faltering start on the last day at Bethpage and could afford to bogey two of his last three holes as he held off the challenge of Mickelson to secure the eighth major title of his career.
But since then he has struggled to impose himself in the same manner in golf's bigger tournaments.
His dream of completing the first professional Grand Slam of all four majors in a calendar year was wrecked at last year's British Open by his third-round 81 in driving wind and rain at Muirfield.
One month later, he failed in his dramatic bid to charge into the US PGA championship lead in the final round at Hazeltine.
Despite closing with four consecutive birdies, Woods was foiled by the unlikely Rich Beem, who held his nerve over a tense 18 final holes to seal the third PGA Tour victory of his career.
But one thing you can never underestimate about Woods is his ability to peak for the majors. In this regard, he has no equal in the modern game, a fact which seems to be readily acknowledged by his closest challengers. – Reuters