Tiger makes this Open bigger

Back in the groove, Tiger Woods will shoot for his 15th major title this week. DAVID SWANSON / Staff
Back in the groove, Tiger Woods will shoot for his 15th major title this week. DAVID SWANSON / Staff
Posted: June 12, 2013

The sun came out Tuesday at the U.S. Underwater and there hasn't been that much rejoicing on the Main Line since the long-term capital gains tax became law.

There's a difference between being swamped with ticket requests and selling tickets to a swamp, so the USGA and all the folks who have planned this golf tournament for the last seven years were a lot happier than the day before. With a little luck, they might even get it finished by Sunday which would be a great relief to the neighbors along College Avenue who can barely get to Saxbys before all the good pain au chocolat is gone.

That stuff is interesting enough before the first ball is struck in anger on Thursday - if the forecast improves - but it will become forgotten news by the weekend, and the deepest reason for abiding interest in the U.S. Open becomes apparent again: Tiger Woods.

In the history of sports, no single participant has had greater effect on the competitive and economic well-being of his or her game. Not Muhammad Ali, not Babe Ruth, not Pele, not Michael Jordan, not Wayne Gretzky, not Misty May-Treanor or Kerri Walsh. (Threw those in.) No, only Tiger Woods. If he shows up, it's a golf tournament and Joe Mow-the-Lawn will knock off on Sunday afternoon to see what happens. If not, even for a major tournament, the sizzle is replaced just a little by fizzle.

The game has been pretty good to Woods as well. He's the only athlete to top $1 billion in career earnings, including endorsements, and that's including the little downturn he suffered when his knees went south and his former wife tried to adjust his side-view mirror with a 9-iron.

Woods regained his world No. 1 ranking in March after a 21/2-year hiatus during which he slid as far as No. 58. This season, he has won four of the eight tournaments he entered, pocketed another $5.8 million in the process and he comes to Merion seeking his 15th major championship on a soggy course that might turn into his personal dartboard.

If Woods feels a responsibility to the game, understanding that it is healthier when he shows up and plays well, that is apparently way down the list of why he does so. He picks his spots now, playing 20-25 events per year. That might not do any favors to the John Deere Classic in beautiful Silvis, Ill., but whatever keeps Woods competitive is good for golf.

"I think I just enter events to win, and that's it, whether there's a lot of people following or there's no one out there . . . it's still the same," Woods said before his practice round Tuesday. "It's still about winning the event. That's why I played as a junior, all the way through until now is just to try to kick everyone's butt. That to me is the rush. That's the fun. That's the thrill."

Among the major tournaments - the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship - Woods has kicked everyone's butt more times than any golfer except Jack Nicklaus. It is a longer goal than just whatever tournament happens to be next, but catching Nicklaus is also a motivator for Woods. He can narrow the gap from 18-14 to 18-15 at Merion and, at 37, would lead Nicklaus in the age race. Nicklaus also had 14 wins at majors when he was 37.

"It would be nice," Woods said, asked about winning on a legendary course and tying Nicklaus and Bobby Jones with four U.S. Open wins. "We've got a long way to go. I would obviously like to put my name there at the end of the week, but I've got to do my work to put myself there."

A win here would not only put a punctuation on his return to the top, but would end a significant drought at the majors. Woods won the U.S. Open in 2008 and hasn't been holding the big check on the last day since. He didn't play in four of the events, and didn't win the 15 others he did play. There were six finishes in the top five, however, including a fourth at this year's Masters, so nothing would be less surprising than recording the 15th major this tournament.

"Anyone who wins this week will certainly be part of history," Woods said.

But no one else who might win has already written as much of golf's history as Woods. He is the only golfer to have won the four modern majors consecutively, a "Tiger Slam" that covered the 2000 U.S. Open, British Open and PGA and bent around the dogleg of the next year to include the 2001 Masters.

The days of that sort of domination are over. He has 78 PGA wins (second only to Sam Snead's 82) and the true glory years are probably behind him. His body isn't as forgiving as it was 15 years ago and the stress of a million golf swings takes its toll.

He is out there this week, though, walking in the footsteps of Hogan and Lee Trevino, and stalking the career record of Nicklaus. He is here and that means it is a golf tournament.

It would have been without him, too, but everyone knows it wouldn't have been the same.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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