x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

This daunting course is no walk in the park

It costs as little as US$50 (Dh180) for New York State residents to play Bethpage Black, as daunting a golf course as any in the world.

It costs as little as US$50 (Dh180) for New York State residents to play Bethpage Black, as daunting a golf course as any in the world and venue for the 2009 US Open which starts today. Those off-peak concessions have led to an average of 35,000 green fees being paid annually since "the people's course" at Bethpage State Park made history seven years ago by becoming America's first truly municipal complex to stage a major championship.

It was appropriate then that "the people's champion" should be the inaugural winner at Bethpage because nobody has done more to break through the barrier of stuffiness that is associated with top level golf than Tiger Woods - a man who has risen from humble origins to lay claim to being sport's most recognisable character. Tiger is not only seeking to repeat his Bethpage honour, he is the defending US Open champion, having won it so bravely and dramatically a year ago by defying a crippling injury for the regulation 72 holes and then 18 more in a play-off against Rocco Mediate.

Woods was fortunate then not to inflict irreparable damage on the joint. Having raised his haul of majors to 14 and move to within four of Jack Nicklaus's all-time record, he booked in for corrective surgery and was not seen swinging a golf club for nearly 10 months. He is back now, though, with a vengeance, as he proved when shooting a brilliant 65 on the final day of the recent Memorial tournament in Ohio to snatch his second title since his comeback.

That stunning victory dispelled misgivings in the game that Tiger would never regain his previous imperious form. It is hard to look beyond him as he walks on the tee this morning with fellow major champions Padraig Harrington and Angel Cabrera; a clear favourite to take one more significant step towards emulating Nicklaus and ultimately surpassing the Golden Bear. Despite holding the world No 1 ranking for 500 weeks, the last 200 of them consecutively, Woods refuses for the time-being to be acclaimed as the best player ever and has enormous respect for what Nicklaus achieved before him.

When asked who he thought was the greatest, Woods responded: "Jack - he's got 18. I'm at 14." Three of Tiger's 14 majors were in US Opens, traditionally the hardest tournament on the calendar when par golf often prevails and the emphasis is on accuracy. The world No 1 was as straight as he has ever been when winning the Memorial two weeks ago and reflected: "It's always nice to play well going into a major championship. To get a win always adds to the confidence, and no matter how you win, if you can win this way, ball-striking, hitting it that well, especially going into a US Open, it always makes you feel pretty good."

Woods is seeking to become only the third player in 70 years after Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange to retain the US Open title. Woods empathised with the plight of his nearest challenger, Phil Mickelson, whose wife Amy has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Tiger's father Earl Woods died of cancer in 2006. And Mickelson, a huge favourite in New York who is taken part in 61 consecutive major championships is likely to take a break from golf after the US Open which means he will miss the British Open at Turnbury next month.

He said: "I'm putting everything I have into this week, because I don't anticipate being able to play for a little while. "And the fact that my normal support system, Amy and the kids and so forth, aren't going to make the trip this week, I'm kind of hoping to have that of feel the support of help me through the week." @Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae