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Tiger still digging, leaving doubt hanging over U.S. Open prospects

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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At long last, remarkable shots and reliable drives were in the script for Tiger Woods on Sunday. (Getty Images)  
At long last, remarkable shots and reliable drives were in the script for Tiger Woods on Sunday. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The motto of Tiger Woods' native state, which just happens to be where the U.S. Open will be staged next week, is a simple, one-word exclamation contained in the official state seal.

In the California emblem, a miner armed with a pickax hacks away in the soil in search of gold, with "Eureka" emblazoned above his head.

It's a Greek term that means, simply, "I've found it."

Woods might need a bit more digging in the dirt before he discovers what's still missing from his latest swing change, but last week seemingly indicated that he has moved closer to finding a gold golf vein.

After four days of mostly firing laser beams around Muirfield Village, Woods won for the 73rd time in his PGA Tour career with another trademark rally at the end, another goosebump-inducing shot for the YouTube file and thus touched off more Monday water-cooler conversation than at any point in three years.

Counting down from 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 ... it took about that long before the sports planet began hitting the refresh button on the same queries it has wrestled with for months. Is he back? Is it fixed? Plus, can he win the U.S. Open next week in San Francisco?

In a series of radio spots this week, from outlets in Seattle to San Diego and Orlando to Indy, every single host posed those same questions in either the first or second query.

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At this point in Woods' career, snap judgments are like snap hooks -- dangerous and offline. The answers remain as uncertain as ever, just like his results.

A few years back, under the tutelage of former coach Butch Harmon, Woods scraped it around for a few months compared to his former level of success, laboring with swing changes before finally having an epiphany. At one point when his tweaks of the moment were ingrained for good -- or until his next overhaul, anyway -- he effectively said, "I've got it."

As Woods basked in the aftermath of his hugely clutch victory at Jack Nicklaus' home track on Sunday night, it seemed possible that he had had a similar Eureka experience under his latest coach, Sean Foley.

"No, not quite," Woods said as he autographed souvenir flags for tournament officials. "We're still in the process on that."

Caution nonetheless was heaved to the onshore Pacific wind. Within hours, he was installed as the overwhelming favorite next week at Olympic Club, where he finished T18 and never shot a round at par or better in 1998, the last time the U.S. Open was contested at this particular venue.

Wither Woody?

It's harder to handicap than ever before, really. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Five years ago, Woods was winning around 1½ majors a year on average. Now nobody can be sure whether he'll even make the weekend.

In March, Woods won at Bay Hill to snap a 30-month victory drought in official PGA Tour play, and took a huge header as the favorite at the Masters. In three consecutive events, he finished T40 or worse, as bad as any stretch of his career.

Then he showed up last week at Muirfield Village and put on a shot-making exhibition.

"It was just, as Sean likes to say, go out there and put on a stripe show, and I did today," Woods said moments after Sunday's final round.

Which stripes this Tiger will be sporting next week is anybody's guess, but it stands to reason that he might need to hit his driver more than the 4-5 times per round he used it at Memorial. But who's to say he won't drive that club on a string, too?

Rickie Fowler, who lives near Woods in South Florida, is an occasional practice partner along with other tour regulars who live in the area. Playing with Tiger on Sunday, he said he saw things from Woods that the former No. 1 had flashed only in practice rounds, wearing shorts and zooming around in electric carts.

"He was hitting some solid golf shots, and it was fun to see him finally out there making some swings like he does when we're at home," Fowler said.

Fowler also played the first two rounds with Woods at the Players Championship, when Woods finished a distant T40 and the execution was streaky at best.

"Obviously, focus-wise, at home it's a lot more laid back just playing with your buddies," Fowler said. "But golf-swing wise, he looked great [Sunday]. When we played at Players together, when he got on his little stretch of making birdies and went back and forth, he looked like he freed up there.

"Today on the golf course, he looked really free. I saw him hitting it as far as he usually does at home. It's nice to see him free up and let it go."

Well, unless you have to compete against him. With two victories, no player on tour has more trophies in 2012, sporadic and spontaneous execution or not.

Thus, if you're looking for illumination and conclusive enlightenment as to where Woods goes from here, save your money and buy something more useful, like snake oil.

If Woods hasn't quite solved his latest swing mysteries and has yet to utter that famous Greek word, it's safe to say that despite his posturing, even he's not sure what happens next in the San Francisco.

But this might be the only certainty as he heads toward next week and the four-year anniversary of his last major win: It's gotta beat the heck out of the Greek tragedy he was living only a few months ago, no?

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