U.S. Open 2018: Will Tiger Woods' first win in five years come at Shinnecock Hills?

There is a text message thread including a number of national golf writers and broadcasters, and this is how many of our Tiger Woods conversations go: A number of us discuss the merits of Woods and his new game and how not only is he not what he used to be, he's probably not a version of what that original edition, either.

We talk about the sixth iteration of his swing (or whatever number we're on), how he's still obsessed with length and why this 42-year-old version of Woods might be the most compelling of them all. The thread always ends with somebody throwing it out there. It sounded preposterous in January at the Farmers Insurance Open. It sounds less so now. 

But ... what if he wins?

It is a question around which the golf world has swung for the better part of two decades. It means something different than it did in 2000 or 2005 or even 2012, but it still means something (and might even mean something more than it once did).

I'm not totally sure what a Big Cat win at the 118th U.S. Open would mean. I go back and forth from thinking his comeback story is overrated by those of us submerged in golf media world to believing we're underrating it and that the broader sports world cares far more about this than everything else in golf combined. It's been six months, and I still don't totally know where I land.

I do know that Woods getting into contention at a place where he's never had success would be a big deal, and I know he can get into contention. 

Ignore the last few finishes at The Players Championship and the Memorial Tournament. He hasn't putted well. I don't care about putting. You don't win the U.S. Open because you're the best putter in the world. You win the U.S. Open because you putt well enough in a week when you strike the ball better than everyone else on the planet. And Woods, maybe remarkably, seems capable of doing that.

Woods' last six official rounds have been a show. He's working the ball both ways. He's hitting every distance, blistering his long irons, reeling in his short irons and wedges and generally giving himself every opportunity to score. And he's shaping and controlling his shots in a way that makes you think not "what if?" but rather "how soon?"

Here are his strokes gained from tee to green rankings over those last six rounds.

  • Round 3 at Players: No. 8
  • Round 4 at Players: No. 29
  • Round 1 at Memorial: No. 37
  • Round 2 at Memorial: No. 1
  • Round 3 at Memorial: No. 4
  • Round 4 at Memorial: No. 27

Those are remarkable numbers. He finished 30th at The Players in strokes gained from tee to green after two bad first days, and then he finished first overall at Memorial. Yes, it's true that he has struggled with driver, but as Golf Channel analyst David Duval pointed out recently, that might not be as big of a deal as you think.

"At this point, with what we've seen with his most recent reincarnation and comeback, I would actually go the opposite way ... if you think of a U.S. Open or an Open," said Duval. "... He's certainly got a lot of speed and distance, but accuracy [with the driver] has not been there. His iron play has certainly been -- I mean, it's been up and down a little bit, but I think that's where the strength has been. And so, potentially taking the driver out of his hands might actually give him a better opportunity."

We'll see how much Woods actually takes driver out of his own hands at a 7,400-yard U.S. Open course (like he did at the 2006 Open), but wider fairways than he saw at the 2004 U.S. Open will certainly help.

And this week is less about what Woods will do than what he could do -- right now, anyway, at the beginning of the week. His resume obviously needs no additions. He's probably the best to ever play, depending on how you want to define it. And he's certainly the most dominant.

He's won all over the planet. Augusta, St. Andrews, Bethpage, Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, Medinah, Royal Liverpool, Valhalla, Bay Hill, Southern Hills and myriad other places. Those first three are all-time classics, and Shinnecock Hlls matches their stature. Its setup sounds very much like something an in-his-prime Tiger would love. We'll see if a past-his-prime-but-still-very-good Tiger agrees.

No single hole at Shinnecock is overwhelmingly hard, but no hole is easy. Great play is rewarded with scoring opportunities, while average play yields difficult pars. Shinnecock is a sum of all of its parts, the uneven lies, wind and vexing green complexes wear on players over 18 holes. Playing Shinnecock is like stepping into the ring against Floyd Mayweather. The course doesn't rely on singular holes to deliver knockout punches but rather lies in wait for tactical mistakes ready to punish them.

Tiger Woods is probably not going to win the 2018 U.S. Open. He's probably not going to beat Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama in the same week. It's a massive ask for someone -- even someone named Tiger -- who hasn't tasted victory in nearly five years.

But what if he won? What if he won this week in this field on this course -- probably the best in the U.S. Open rotation -- with this much time between victories. That 2008 U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines on one leg is widely considered Woods' greatest win ever. Exactly 10 years later, a win at Shinnecock from Woods, if it happens, might replace it.

So who will win the 2018 U.S. Open, and which long shots are set to stun the golfing world? Find out by visiting SportsLine now to see the U.S. Open projected leaderboard from the model that's nailed four of the last five majors heading into the weekend. 

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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