By DOUG FERGUSON
OAKMONT, Pa. – Given the stature of Oakmont as the foremost championship course in America, and the status of Tiger Woods as the best player in golf, it seems odd that it took 10 years for these two to get together.
It’s all about timing – not to mention location.
Oakmont will host a record eighth U.S. Open in June, the first since 1994 when Woods had just finished high school and the star born at the U.S. Open that summer was a 24-year-old South African named Ernie Els.
And while Woods loves to play recreational golf, he hardly travels anywhere for that.
After his weekend at Oakmont, he now has played every U.S. Open course over the last 25 years.
But there are still places to see.
“Ever been to Merion?’’ he was asked.
“Never,’’ Woods replied, and he could see where this conversation was headed. “I’ve never even been to Pine Valley or Seminole.’’
Pine Valley is annually ranked the best course in the country by some publications, and it was strange Woods has never been in the southern New Jersey area long enough to play it. Jack Nicklaus went there during his honeymoon.
Seminole should be no problem once Woods builds his palace in south Florida. He played Sunday afternoon with Bob Ford, the longtime head pro at Oakmont who spends his winter as the head pro at Seminole. Ford can probably set something up for him.
“I just don’t ever go anywhere out of the way to play golf,’’ Woods said. “I’m either at a tournament, or getting ready to play in a tournament and working on my game at home. I love to play, but I’d rather stay home with my buds at Isleworth or Newport Beach.’’
Merion will host the U.S. Open in 2013, so as long as Woods can qualify that year, he’ll eventually get to see the plaque on the 18th fairway – as he’s walking past it to his ball – where Ben Hogan struck his mighty 1-iron in the final round of the 1950 U.S. Open.
Nicklaus won the first of his 18 majors at Oakmont, and the course lived up to Woods’ expectations, with a pleasant surprise visually. The club has removed some 8,000 trees since it last held the U.S. Open, restoring the original terrain. Woods said the openness reminded him of Shinnecock Hills. From a slight rise on the 14th fairway, you can see parts of the every hole on the back nine.
He also had heard the debate whether Oakmont or Winged Foot was the toughest championship course on any given Sunday morning for the members. “Of all the tournaments I’ve ever played, no golf course was harder than Winged Foot,’’ Woods said late last year.
He was reminded of that comment when he walked off the 18th green Sunday morning after his first trip around at Oakmont.
“It’s not even close,’’ Woods said. “It’s this one.’’
And that was with the green bumping along at about 10 1/2 on the Stimpmeter (the course was under snow a week ago). It usually runs in the neighborhood of 13 for some of the members’ tournaments.
“Every green is pitched one way or another,’’ Woods said. “If you do miss on the high side, it’s impossible.’’
He got in 54 holes of practice, the last 18 with some very surprised card members of American Express who got to tag along.
The next goal for Woods is to stick around longer than two rounds when he returns in June.
He is coming up on the one-year anniversary of a historic occasion in his pro career – the first time he watched the final round of a major championship from his boat. He missed the cut at Winged Foot, which he had never done in a major.
What surprised him was that it took 10 years to happen.
“You figure you’re going to have one bad week somewhere along the way,’’ he said.
It happened to Nicklaus in his fifth major as a pro when he missed the cut as the defending champion at the 1963 U.S. Open. It happens to everybody eventually.
And that brought to mind some other things due to happen to Woods:
• One of these days, he’s going to have a 54-hole lead at a major and lose.
Woods lost the lead Sunday at the Masters, but he started the final round one shot behind Stuart Appleby, and he had the lead for all of about 15 minutes. It probably should have happened at the 2005 Masters, but Woods was spared by one last turn of the ball when he chipped in for birdie on the 16th, and by Chris DiMarco’s inability to make a half-dozen birdie putts inside 12 feet.
Nicklaus was 4-0 with at least a share of the 54-hole lead in majors until he lost to Charles Coody in the 1971 Masters.
It will happen one of these days.
“I don’t know,’’ Woods said, not willing to concede that one just yet. “If I keep putting myself in that position, I guess it could.’’
• He still hasn’t come from behind to win a major, like Arnold Palmer from seven shots back in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, or Nicklaus shooting 30 on the back nine at Augusta National to win in 1986.
• He has never lost a playoff in a major. Woods has been in only two of them. Palmer lost three playoffs in the U.S. Open.
• He has never missed a major for which he was eligible.
Nicklaus went 154 in a row until hip replacement surgery in 1998, although he had a few close calls with the birth of five children. Steve was born the Thursday after he won his first Masters in 1963, and Michael was born 10 days after the 1973 British Open.
Woods’ first child is due this summer, probably closer to the British Open than the U.S. Open. Woods has said he won’t miss the birth, even if that means skipping a major.
If the baby comes early, it might be awhile before he returns to Oakmont.