Tiger Woods Favored To Win U.S. Open

Opening round play begins Thursday in the U.S. Open Golf Championship. Tiger Woods is defending two U.S. Open titles: the one he won a year ago on an injured knee; and the one he won seven years ago, which was the last time the tournament was played at New York's Bethpage State Park.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Hey, the United States Open Golf Championship begins this morning. It's outside of New York City at Bethpage State Park. Tiger Woods is the defending champion and John Feinstein will be paying attention, as he does every year.

Hi, John.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: We should recall that Tiger Woods played injured and won this open a year ago. How's he look now?

FEINSTEIN: He looks extremely healthy. He had major knee surgery right after the Open. I think I made the comment to you last year, that Tiger having won the Open on one leg maybe this year he should try it with one hand, just to be challenged. But he won his last tournament, the Memorial, he's now one twice in seven events since he came back. It was amusing to me, that when he didn't win the Masters and only finished sixth in another event, people were saying what's wrong with Tiger, has he lost it? Well, he hasn't lost a thing. It just takes a little while, even for Tiger Woods, to come back after eight months off from golf.

INSKEEP: But let me ask, because at the end of that U.S. Open, it was sort of known that he was in some kind of physical trouble. It wasn't known exactly how bad, and it was just evident he didn't have all his game, he just had a lot of will and willed himself to win. Is he willing himself to win now or is he back in top form?

FEINSTEIN: Oh, I think he's back in top form. He shot 65 the last day at the Memorial to win a couple of weeks ago, as I said. And he needed knee surgery then when he won that remarkable playoff against Rocco Mediate - went 91 holes to win, not just 72. So when you talk about his will, you're 100 percent right.

But now the knee is rebuilt and he's just got to get used to playing golf again. The last thing that comes back when you're off for awhile for any golfer is your short game, Steve, and his putting was superb at the Memorial. So I think - he's clearly the favorite. He loves this golf course. He won on it seven years ago, but there are 155 other guys out there who are pretty good, too.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the golf course, because that is nearly as big an attraction, I think, as Tiger Woods.

FEINSTEIN: Well, it's unique, because it was the first truly public golf course on which an Open was played, back in 2002. Really, the brainchild of David Fay, the executive director of the USGA - taking a great golf course that was in disrepair, the USGA put five million dollars into rebuilding it - and the players will tell you it was one of the great Open venues ever. That's why they're back again after only seven years. And my bet is, once this Open is over, they'll announce they're coming back again in seven or eight years.

INSKEEP: And typically, it might be ten years or even more between Open courses.

FEINSTEIN: Or even more. Exactly.

INSKEEP: Or never, in many cases.

FEINSTEIN: Or never. Yes. A great golf course like Baltusrol hasn't had an Open since 1993 and who knows if it ever will again.

INSKEEP: And we should mention, coming back to Tiger Woods, that he was the guy who won this seven years ago.

FEINSTEIN: Exactly. Going wire to wire, which is very unusual for him. Usually he makes his move Saturday and takes over the tournament Sunday. He took the lead on Thursday, never looked back. This is a long, difficult golf course, Steve - long fits Tiger Woods.

It also fits Phil Mickelson, who finished second here seven years ago. And that's when the New York fans kind of fell in love with him, because he was the underdog, he hadn't won a major at that point. He's now been second in four U.S. Opens. He's sort of the Buffalo Bills of this event. And with his wife Amy facing surgery in a couple of weeks for breast cancer you can bet he will be the sentimental favorite this week.

INSKEEP: I have to ask, what do you think the odds are for Rocco Mediate who went those 91 holes - 19 extra holes with Tiger Woods a year ago?

FEINSTEIN: Well, obviously I'll be rooting for him, Steve. And I think a lot of people will. They know what he's gone through in the last year. The woman in his life, Cindi Hilfman, has been dealing with a serious kidney problem. She's been in and out of the hospital. Rocco's golf hasn't been very good.

But you know what? It wasn't that good coming into the Open last year. He was ranked 158th in the world. So that's the beauty of golf. If you get hot on the right weekend - and this is the kind of golf course Rocco can play well on -anything can happen.

INSKEEP: John, thanks very much.

FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Comments from John Feinstein. His new book is, by the way, "Are You Kidding Me?: The Story of Rocco Mediate's Extraordinary Battle with Tiger Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open."

This is NPR News.

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