FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - "I like my chances to win any major."
So what did you think Tiger Woods was going to say yesterday at Bethpage Black? That all he was really trying to do this week was make a big move in the all-important FedEx Cup standings?
This is one of the 4 weeks each year that define careers. Woods won one of his 14 majors the last time the U.S. Open was played here, in 2002. He won his third Open last June at Torrey Pines, on a left knee that needed major reconstructive surgery 8 days later.
This is the only major he's never won back-to-back. Only two men in the last 7 decades have - Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange. The last thing Tiger ever needs is a reason. Did we mention that in his last tuneup, 2 weeks ago at The Memorial, he closed with a 65 to win by one?
"It's always nice to be playing well going into a major championship, no doubt," he said. "It always makes you feel pretty good, adds to the confidence."
The rest of the field will be glad to know that.
Seven years ago, Tiger won by three over Phil Mickelson, who became the crowd darling. The New York galleries have embraced him ever since. And this time, the so-called People's Open (which still charges country-club prices at the concession stands) should be just as boisterous, pro or con. Ask Sergio Garcia.
"I've never played in front of an atmosphere that loud for all 18 holes," recalled Woods, who is one USGA title away from being the first person to ever reach 10. "After what transpired here in September , I just think everyone was looking to celebrate something else. I've never seen anything like it. I don't think we ever will, given the circumstances surrounding the event.
"It was just electric. Even when it was raining. The people were out there cheering and having a great time, tipping back a couple. It was a great crowd to play in front of."
This week should be more of the same, including the wet stuff in the forecast (for tomorrow and Friday). Tiger tied for sixth at the Masters in April, his first major in 10 months. In his eight majors before that, he'd won four and finished second three times. He was runner-up in this one in 2005 and '07. And the leg is getting stronger with every swing.
"I certainly feel a lot more stable," Woods explained. "Compared to Bay Hill [where he won in March], it's night and day. After the surgery, you feel so great 6, 8 months later. But everyone says just imagine what you'll feel like in another 6 months.
"It's fun. Because no matter what I did before, [the leg] kept getting worse. No matter how hard I trained, it was deteriorating. I kept doing more damage to the thing. Now it's the exact opposite."
The Open is anything but fun. In two of Tiger's wins, he was the only man to break par. A year ago only he and Rocco Mediate, whom he would beat in a Monday playoff that will live forever, were in red numbers at the end of 72 holes. This course figures to play even tougher because of the moisture. So grind away.
"Generally, this is the hardest major we play year in, year out," Woods said. "I just enjoy having to think your way around a golf course. Par is rewarded and a birdie is really rewarded. That, to me, is how the game should be played. Whatever it takes. How you do that is up to you."
Mickelson, of course, will be here without his wife, Amy, who is battling breast cancer. He played last week for the first time in almost a month and tied for 59th. There have been four Opens in the New York area since 1995. Lefty has finished fourth, second, second and second. And he won the 2005 PGA across the river in New Jersey at Baltusrol.
Tiger's father died in 2006. After an extended layoff, he missed the cut at the Open at Winged Foot, the only time that's happened to him as a pro. Although this isn't the same, he understands the emotions and burden of Mickelson's ordeal.
"Your parents are supposed to pass away before you," he said. "And God forbid how they get sick or how it ends. But to have a spouse, you're supposed to go together. I couldn't imagine dealing with what he has to deal with on a daily basis. Hats off to how he's handled it, because it's certainly so hard to do. Everywhere you go people are always reminding you of it, wishing you well and [hoping] everything works out, and you can't get away from it. You think the golf course would be your escape, but it's not . . .
"Hopefully it's one of those things where you try and find energy from somewhere outside the ropes. Sometimes that's a great thing. I can only speak from my experience of losing someone close to me. You don't sleep much. It's hard."
It's life. Occasionally, it infringes on the stuff most of us only think are important. Tiger's first child, Sam, will celebrate her second birthday in a few days. He held her in his arms proudly after last year's victory. Just as he shared that tearful bearhug with his dad when he won the Masters in 1997. Priceless images.
Think there are more in his future?
"To see where she is now, running around and speaking English and Swedish [from her mother, Elin]," Tiger said, smiling. "And more Swedish than English. It's just hard to believe that time flies by so fast. It's just amazing."
Indeed it has been. *