Tiger says his game's coming together

Updated: July 19, 2010, 10:35 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Tiger Woods cut short his practice round on Tuesday in preparation for the U.S. Open, walking off the Pebble Beach course after the 14th hole.

But his abbreviated round had nothing to do with injury or illness. His real reason for cutting short his on-the-course session Tuesday was simply to conserve energy, he said.

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"The main reason [was] I really wanted to get in here and talk to you guys on time," said Woods, tongue planted firmly in cheek, about his scheduled news conference.

Woods offered up a few quips, got testy about a question concerning the status of his marriage, shared his thoughts on the Pebble Beach course that he had not played since 2002, and discussed his record-setting U.S. Open victory here in 2000.

There was not, however, much in the way of new information from the world's No. 1 golfer, who is making just his fifth tournament appearance of the year after a well-publicized break due to acknowledged marital infidelity.

"As far as my game, I'm very excited about how it's progressed, since before [the] Memorial, then obviously during Memorial, and now here it's gotten better," Woods said. "The more time I've been able to practice and play, it's starting to solidify, and I'm actually really excited to tee it up on Thursday."

Woods, who arrived in California on Sunday and played practice rounds each of the past three days, will tee off in the first round at 4:36 p.m. ET with Lee Westwood and Ernie Els.

Woods' tournament performances so far have not given reason for such optimism. Since tying for fourth at the Masters, Woods missed the cut at the Quail Hollow Championship, withdrew from The Players Championship, then tied for 19th on June 6 at the Memorial, where he was the defending champion but never contended.

When asked whether there was any resolution to his martial situation with his wife, Elin, Woods tersely replied: "That's none of your business."

Before Woods' personal scandal unfolded this past fall, 2010 had been deemed a big year in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships because three of the four majors were being played at venues (Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews) where Woods has won seven of his 14 majors.

As far as my game, I'm very excited about how it's progressed, since before [the] Memorial, then obviously during Memorial, and now here it's gotten better. The more time I've been able to practice and play, it's starting to solidify.

-- Tiger Woods

He won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes and was the only player to finish under par in a year in which he also captured the British Open and the PGA Championship.

"Funny thing is I actually hit it better at St. Andrews than I did here," Woods said of his 8-stroke win a month later at the British Open. "But I putted better here. Yeah, that was a good week. It was a good weekend."

Phil Mickelson, who played his first professional tournament at Pebble Beach during the 1992 U.S. Open, described Woods' 2000 victory as "the greatest performance I've ever seen in the game, to shoot 12 under by Tiger, that was the best ball striking and the best putting tournament that's ever been performed in my opinion. The next [closest score] was 3 over. And I thought that that was pretty good play."

Hopes for a big year from Woods have dimmed considerably since he took a five-month break from competition and returned with obvious deficiencies in his game and then a neck injury that forced him to withdraw from The Players.

"The neck is better," Woods said. "It's not where I want it, but it is better, no doubt. It does get sore from time to time. But I can recover for the next day. And I haven't had any days where I couldn't go the next day. That's a big step in the right direction."

As has been the case for the past several tournaments, Mickelson has a chance to overtake Woods for the No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career. Woods has held the No. 1 spot for the past five years, but a Mickelson victory or a top-three finish with varying results for Lefty would vault him into the top spot.

Mickelson won the Masters in April for the third time, giving him four major championships. But he has never won the U.S. Open, a tournament where he's been runner-up five times. He finished second last year at Bethpage, where he was tied for the lead with three holes to go but ended up 2 strokes behind winner Lucas Glover.

"It would mean a lot to any player, myself included, given that I've come so close so many times," Mickelson said when asked about winning the Open at Pebble Beach. "My special tie to Pebble Beach ... it was my first event as a professional. I've played so much here over the years and had some success at AT&T [three victories] and have a lot of fond memories here."

Woods said of Mickelson: "I think just by finishing second five times it goes to show you that he understands how to play Opens. This is the toughest event to win, and he's been right there so many times. It's just a matter of time before he gets it done. But he understands how to put himself there and what it takes over the long haul to be in that position. And that's not easy to do. But he's done just a great job of it over the years."

Bob Harig is ESPN.com's golf writer.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com