DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Tiger Woods spent two days at Chambers Bay getting his first look at the U.S. Open course. Phil Mickelson was south of Seattle last week, starting his preparations for the only major he’s never won.
The U.S. Open course is so new and can be set up so many different ways that it’s prudent for players to spend more time at Chambers Bay than they might for other courses like Oakmont or Pebble Beach or Winged Foot.
Rickie Fowler, coming off his big win at The Players Championship, will get there soon enough.
Fowler also had a long flight to central Ohio for the Memorial, only he came from a different coastline. He went to Northern Ireland for the Irish Open at Royal County Down, where he was in the mix until an 8-8 finish in the third round sent him to the middle of the pack.
The Memorial, which starts Thursday, is his final tournament before the second major of the year. Fowler said he plans to arrive the weekend before the U.S. Open, just like he would no matter what the course.
“Planning to play next Sunday leading up to the week,” he said. “And I have heard that there’s quite a bit of options and there’s going to be probably the most changing of the golf course than ever before. But I guess I don’t want to spend too much time. I want to focus on this week and be able to prepare and play well this week and make sure my game is ready to go.
“If I’m playing well and hitting my targets and my numbers and my lines, it’s going to make it easier to go get ready to play golf at the U.S. Open.”
Muirfield Village presents its own kind of test.
In its 40th year as the course and tournament that Jack Nicklaus built, the course is in immaculate shape and the field is as strong as ever. Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 1 player, decided to sit this one out because he has played five straight tournaments on two continents (including two victories). He sent Nicklaus a letter and saw him at home in Florida to express his regrets. Nicklaus wasn’t the least bit bothered.
“I said, ‘If you have stuff you’ve got to do in Ireland and you’ve got to do that, you’ve got to do what’s right for you. You’ve got to get yourself ready for the U.S. Open,” Nicklaus said. “And that’s fine with me.”
He has no qualms with the players he did attract to Muirfield Village — six of the top 10, featuring Masters champion Jordan Spieth. And that list doesn’t even include Woods or Mickelson, who remain the biggest draw in golf.
Mickelson hasn’t won a tournament since the 2013 British Open, which left him a U.S. Open win away from the career Grand Slam. He has two runner-up finishes since then on the PGA Tour, and they both were majors — the PGA Championship last year at Valhalla and the Masters this year.
He is at No. 19 in the world.
Woods is No. 172, his lowest ranking since he turned pro at age 20. That’s understandable considering the state of his health (he missed more than half of last season with back surgery) and the state of his game (it got so bad in January that he took two months off until it was up to his standards).
Progress remains slow. Woods tied for 17th at the Masters and finished toward the bottom at The Players Championship. Even so, it was the first time since the end of 2013 that he completed back-to-back tournaments of 72 holes.
“It’s still evolving, but it’s getting better,” Woods said of his game.
He has won at the Memorial a record five times, the last time in 2012 with a chip-in behind the 16th green that even Nicklaus said was one of the best he ever saw. The last time he played the Memorial in 2013, he had a career-worst 44 on the back nine as part of a 79 in the third round that sent him toward the bottom of the pack.
Woods believes his game is going in the right direction. He can appreciate Fowler’s thinking about getting his game in order — playing well never hurt. Then again, Woods has been around long enough to know the game can be fleeting, especially at majors.
He won the Memorial in 2009, and Nicklaus said he would be “greatly surprised” if Woods didn’t win his 15th major two weeks later at Bethpage Black if he played that well. Woods did play well, he just couldn’t buy a putt and tied for sixth. Three years ago, Woods won his final start before the Masters and U.S. Open and didn’t win either major.
“It’s about peaking at the right time,” he said. “The main thing is I want to be able to start playing again, being in contention with a chance to win. I’d like to get there more often and give myself more opportunities to win.”