SAN JOSE -- My first interview with Tiger Woods was in the spring of 1996. He was a Stanford sophomore. I had followed him around the university's golf course during a tournament. I was impressed with the way he handled it when a spectator with alcohol on his breath walked up in midround to ask for an autograph.
"Afterward, please?" Woods said, more professionally and politely than you'd expect from a college kid.
Later, we sat inside a small room near the golf shop and I mentioned the incident to Woods, asking if he'd gotten too big for NCAA golf. Woods promised he wasn't going to turn pro soon, saying: "I haven't done everything I want to do in college -- I have a lot more growing to do."
Six months later, Woods did join the PGA Tour. But he was right. He did have a lot more growing to do. His ups and downs have been well documented, on and off the course. But you can't deny three things:
1. He has been the most compelling American athlete of the past 15 years.
2. When his golf game is right, he is still the best show in town or on your television set.
3. It's still difficult at times to figure out whether to root for him or against him.
Now comes this week's U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia, which will provide Woods another chance to break his streak of 19 major championships without a victory. But even if you were turned off by Woods' bizarre "unintentional cheating" episode at the Masters, I say there is a reason to get behind him:
American golf needs him to win a major right now. Almost desperately. Perhaps it has escaped your attention that 10 of the past 14 major championships have been won by foreign players -- after 13 of the previous 23 had been won by U.S. golfers.
It's no coincidence that the star-spangled slump more or less began after Woods' last major championship victory, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and subsequent encounter with medical and fire hydrant issues. Woods has returned to become a force on tour, winning seven events over the past two years. But the major title drought continues to dog him. And the USA's golf slump rides along. (Don't even ask about the 2012 Ryder Cup.)
At the moment, only four of the top 10 names in the World Golf Rankings are Americans -- Woods, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker and Phil Mickelson. But I don't expect the others to challenge at Merion.
Mickelson finished second Sunday in Memphis but always seems to have one psych-out moment at every U.S. Open that undoes him. Kuchar owns no major titles. Snedeker won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am back in February and appeared on track for a big year but at last report was giving himself painful injections to work his way through a serious rib problem.
That leaves Woods. If any other American is going to contend this week, it will have to be some young pup who jumps up out of nowhere, the way that Webb Simpson did a year ago to win at the Olympic Club. I'm not counting on it happening two straight years.
Woods has shown in the past few months that he's got game to win another major. I discount his ugly 44 for nine holes at the Memorial tournament, his last appearance. My theory is that he was grooming his shots for Merion and became distracted. Merion is a short, compact course. It should set up well for Woods' cerebral shotmaking. It should also keep his driver in his bag -- and his driver has been his undoing at most recent majors.
And if Woods or another American doesn't win? It won't be the end of the world. But if it continues long term, we don't need to wonder what it will mean. Just take a gander at another sport that once riveted Americans' attention but no longer does -- men's tennis. The just-completed French Open was a terrific tournament with brilliant matches and storylines, won Sunday by Rafael Nadal of Spain, but America barely cared. In the latest ATP World Rankings, the top USA player on the list is Sam Querrey, rated 19th. (I pause here for you to ask: "Who?")
Woods probably isn't thinking nationalistic thoughts this week. But if he wants to prove once and for all that he's moved past his travails of the past five years as adroitly as he handled that drunk spectator at Stanford so long ago, then he needs to win at Merion. It will prove that at age 37, he has indeed grown up. And that American golf is back on track.
Mr. Woods, a golfing nation turns its lonely eyes to you.