Woods favourite but there's company

Tiger Woods of the U.S. watches his tee shot on the 10th hole during a practice round for the 2012...

Tiger Woods of the U.S. watches his tee shot on the 10th hole during a practice round for the 2012 U.S. Open PGA golf tournament on the Lake Course at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, California June 11, 2012. (Jeff Haynes/REUTERS)

Kirk Penton, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:16 PM ET

Is Tiger Woods all the way back?

Not yet, but he gone beyond just knocking on the door and already has one foot in the kitchen. When he wins his next major -- and you know it's going to happen at some point -- he will officially, 100%, be back on the top in golf.

Woods has won two tournaments this year, including the Memorial a couple of weeks ago, so the U.S. Open -- which starts Thursday at Olympic Club in San Francisco -- should be one of the most compelling majors in years.

In the old days, and by that we mean a decade ago, Woods was in a class by himself. He destroyed the field at Pebble Beach, just down the road from Olympic, by 15 strokes at the 2000 U.S. Open and held every major crown when he won the Masters 10 months later.

Injuries and his highly public personal problems slowed him down, but they didn't take him completely off the radar screen like some people think. He has tied for fourth in three of seven major appearances since that career-altering night in November 2009. Name one golfer who wouldn't be happy with that.

Woods never went away entirely. He just wasn't front and centre.

Now, however, his career arc is trending upward again. It's at the same level of everyone else who is considered among the game's elite. In the old days it was Woods and everyone else. Last year and in 2008, when injuries had him on the shelf or his game was rusty because of them, the belief was Woods couldn't even contend.

Now it's Tiger and Phil and Rory and Bubba. It's Woods and Westwood and Donald and Dufner. There is no standout among the cream of the crop. Woods could very well win Sunday, but so could everyone else. It has been a while -- perhaps not since Woods joined the scene in 1997 -- since that statement was true.

"In this game you never have any idea if you have it the next week," two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North said last week. "You hope you can get on a consistent basis. But what Tiger did through those years where he was ridiculously good is unheard of. Guys miss cuts. Guys have a bad week. Guys have issues off the golf course and they can't concentrate (because of) business or family. 

"It's truly amazing what he did. I surely would think the fact that he has now won twice this year, he has got to be getting a lot closer."

Technically, Woods should win this week. Olympic's Lake Course is 7,170 yards and it requires excellent tee shots, so long and straight is a necessity. Statistically speaking, no PGA Tour player is hitting it longer and straighter than Woods right now.

He will have his challengers, though, and that's why the tournament should be a doozy. Jason Dufner has two wins and a runner-up showing in three of his past four starts. Phil Mickelson has four runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, so you'd think the golf gods would smile on him one of these years. Lee Westwood is banging on the major door, and all that pressure should knock it down soon.

Dustin Johnson, who captured the St. Jude Classic on Sunday and plays well on the West Coast, is another who's on the cusp of a major victory. Bubba Watson won the Masters, but the last player not named Tiger to win the year's first two majors was some guy named Nicklaus in 1972, so the odds are stacked against him.

The bottom line is this week's tournament will have an electric feel that has been missing from majors for a few years. Tiger is back among the game's elite, but he's not guaranteed to destroy the field. Adding to the drama is the fact Woods, Mickelson and Watson are playing the first two rounds together.

When you gather at your local watering hole on Wednesday night to conduct your U.S. Open pool, the first overall choice is obvious if you happen to get it. He has won 14 majors, and he has the mental strength to keep it together when the going gets tough during the final round.

His name is Tiger, and he will officially be "back" Sunday.

kirk.penton@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/PentonKirk


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