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Confident Woods set to repeat at U.S. Open

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - The U.S. Open had been around well before Tiger Woods played in his first round as an amateur in 1995, but it appears to be the one tournament that fits Woods like the tiger head cover on his driver.

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - The U.S. Open had been around well before Tiger Woods played in his first round as an amateur in 1995, but it appears to be the one tournament that fits Woods like the tiger head cover on his driver.

With the seemingly perfect balance of physical tools and mental toughness to handle the confounding Open course conditions, Woods has been a strong favorite every year since his incredible 15-stroke victory - with a record score of 12-under par - at Pebble Beach in 2000, his first championship.

Now Woods returns to Bethpage Black, the scene of his 2002 Open triumph, looking to make history in a couple of areas.

A victory this week would put him with Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson as the only players to win four Open titles. Combined with last year's win at Torrey Pines, it would enable him to match Hogan and Curtis Strange as the third man to win back-to-back Opens since World War II.

So if you add his phenomenal display of driving accuracy from his win at the Memorial Tournament 10 days ago to his precise iron play, his uncanny short game, and his sonar-like putting, you would probably like his chances to win at this busy public course.

Right, Tiger?

"I like my chances in any major," Woods said yesterday. "I just enjoy having to think your way around a golf course.At a lot of the tour events, you have to make birdies. If you don't shoot 68, you're losing ground. Here if you shoot 68, you're moving up on the leader board. To me that's fun. Par is rewarded, and birdie is really rewarded. That, to me, is how the game of golf should be played."

Attitude also goes a long way in Woods' game, not just his confidence but the fact that he doesn't seem stressed when things don't go well for him in an Open. The fire burns within, but it never gets out of control.

His grit and patience were tested to the ultimate degree last year when he limped around with a bad left knee and grimaced on nearly every tee shot he hit. He defeated Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff then revealed the news about his knee.

It turns out Woods not only had a torn anterior cruciate ligament but also a double stress fracture of his left tibia. He underwent surgery eight days later after finishing out the Open and didn't return until February.

When asked yesterday if he fit the mold of the "prototypical" U.S. Open player, Woods deflected the question somewhat, saying that the pattern has changed from the short, straight Open champions such as Strange and Scott Simpson.

"There are different ways of playing," he said. "You can do what Angel [Cabrera] did, hit driver every hole [in his win] at Oakmont. . . . Or you can play a shorter, more conservative game.

"The whole idea of a U.S. Open is to grind it out and make pars. How you do that, it's up to you. You just can't afford to make too many bogeys or doubles because you can't make birdies. So however you feel you can make a bunch of pars, I think that's what you're looking for."

No one knows how many birdies are out there on Bethpage Black. The course has been set up to play at 7,426 yards, second in length in Open history, but will play significantly longer because of rain that fell Monday. More rain is forecast for tomorrow's opening round.

Woods called it "probably the most difficult golf course we've faced from tee to green."

"Like any other U.S. Open, you have to be patient," he said. "You have to get the ball in play. At least this week, if you put the ball on the greens, you'll have a lot of good chances at birdies because the greens are relatively flat."

Woods said he expected U.S. Golf Association officials to "mix and match" back tees and other tees as they did last year at Torrey Pines.

But somehow, the way he played in his most recent event and at his last U.S. Open, the length could be 7,000 yards or 8,000 yards and Woods would still have the best shot of anyone in the field to win.

"I've had some good practice sessions at home, and my practice rounds here this week have been really good," he said. "I'm really looking forward to getting out there and competing and playing."