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Tiger continues to try new equipment

Tiger Woods had to know that playing a practice round with Michael Jordan and two of Jordan's friends at Olympia Fields Country Club's North Course on May 27 would draw attention.

It became such a news nugget that Golfweek magazine quoted an eyewitness saying Woods shot "about 68 or 69" and basketball superstar Jordan carded an 88. Jordan's caddie, Dan Egan, told GolfWorld that Jordan "was all over the place. I had to do a lot of work."

But no one should misconstrue Woods' motives because of his choice of a foursome. He is extremely serious in his preparation for the U.S. Open, the year's second major that opens Thursday at Olympia Fields on Chicago's South Side.

Woods owns two U.S. Open titles, beating Phil Mickelson by 3 shots in 2002 at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., and running away by 15 strokes over Ernie Els and Miguel Jimenez at Pebble Beach in 2000.

But until firing a final-round 65 and tying for fourth a week ago at the Memorial Tournament, Woods hadn't recorded a top-10 finish since winning the Bay Hill Invitational on March 23 despite food poisoning.

He shot 76 in the first round of the Masters and 75 in the last and tied for 15th. At the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Germany May 18, he tied for 29th. In a somewhat unusual route to the U.S. Open, he played only two tournaments after the Masters.

Woods has been tinkering with his driver and ball - perhaps Mickelson's "inferior equipment" line struck a nerve? At the Memorial, he used a prototype Nike driver and a new Nike ball, which has been tweaked since Germany. He averaged 296 yards off the tee at Muirfield Village, second only to John Daly.

Woods said it has taken two years of testing with the ball to find one that would give him added distance.

"It's so much better in the wind than my previous ball," he said at the Memorial. "The aerodynamics are so much better. Even though it's a higher-launching ball, it can still get through the wind better."

Considering all of this experimenting, Woods' final round in Columbus might have shown that everything is coming together at the right time for the U.S. Open. Masters winner Mike Weir, back-to-back Colonial and Memorial champion Kenny Perry and Mickelson, with four top 10s in the past five Opens, will be there to challenge.

Weir, Woods and Davis Love III are three-time winners on the PGA Tour this year, and Perry, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh have won twice. But Els' triumphs came in back-to-back events in January and Love is dealing with the May 16 suicide of his brother-in-law Jeffrey Knight, who managed Love's finances and travel arrangements. Knight confessed to Love that he had embezzled money from the player's bank accounts, and four days later, Love discovered the body at Knight's fishing lodge.

Perhaps the biggest threats to Woods might be Weir, third at the Memorial, and Perry, admittedly a streaky player who said his runs usually last three weeks. With a 261 at Colonial, Perry's 19-under total broke the course record by 3 shots.

"If my memory serves me correctly, the tournaments he's won, he's set records in," Woods said of Perry. "Last week was a joke to shoot that at Colonial. Anyone who is hitting the ball well has a chance to win the Open. You can't flap it around there and expect to win the U.S. Open."

Olympia Fields, an historic course that has not hosted an Open since 1928 or a major since the 1961 PGA, might not favor the longer hitters like Woods.

"I played Olympia Fields the day Tiger went there," said Craig Parry, the 2002 NEC Invitational champion when the event was played in Seattle. "I thought it was a fantastic golf course. It brings the short hitters into the game. They have a chance to win the U.S. Open. Last year, really no short hitters had a chance to win."

Woods said Olympia Fields is dramatically different from Bethpage Black.

"There are a lot of angles," Woods said. "You have to shape the ball and you have to make a decision on your carries, what line are you going to take. Bethpage was straight ahead, go ahead and rip it. (At Olympia Fields) there are some high faces on the bunkers so you've got to make a decision. If the conditions are hot and humid, you can carry those bunkers. If you don't, you might be in the rough."

Woods seemed to issue a warning to those who might think he's in a slump. He said it didn't matter what he shot in the final round of the Memorial.

"The way I have been practicing, hitting the ball on the range, playing the golf course, there have been some very positive signs," he said. "All I need is a couple more practice sessions, getting the ball where I need to have it."

 

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