When it comes to the majors, Tiger Woods is not the same golfer he was in 2008. His putting is looser, his shot-making diminished and his ability to coast through pressure while others capitulate is no longer the noticeable divider it once was.
Prevailing thought has it that the strife in his private life derailed his game and diluted the absolute confidence he once felt in it. So much has been said of the mental distractions, but perhaps Tiger's problems are more firmly rooted in the weakening of his physical powers.
Consider the evidence. The last time we saw Tiger win a major was at Torrey Pines in June 2008, where he survived on one leg to beat Rocco Mediate in a US Open play-off. That was the warring, fearless, smack-em-down Tiger of old. Who could forget the putt he sank at the last to stay alive?
It was a monumental victory, but there's an argument Tiger shouldn't have played at all. As recalled by this timeline of his injuries, Woods had knee surgery after the 2008 Masters and decided to go ahead and play the US Open despite a clear risk.
Familiar face: Woods in pain in 2008 on his way to US Open glory
The risk was real. And the price of lifting the trophy was yet more knee surgery and the rest of the season on the sidelines recovering. The frustration that brought prompted an Achilles injury in December 2008, as Tiger hit the roads in an attempt to run himself into shape.
In 2011, three years and those infamous transgressions later, Woods was still struggling with knee problems and still troubled by that Achilles. He cited both as reason for not playing the 2011 US Open.
Carrying injuries like that puts additional strain on other areas of your body, which may explain the "bulging disk" (remember this) he suffered in 2010. It may also have something to do with the elbow strain he struggled with at Merion, that will see him miss the AT&T National.
There's a lot said about Tiger's confidence at the majors and it's clearly not what it was. But we might argue the belief he once had has been weakened more by the ravages to his body than his reputation. Injuries have robbed him of practice time and caused Tiger to play beneath his potential these past five years.
Tiger used to trust himself to sink every putt and make every shot. These days he can't even be sure his body will last a tournament.
Torrey Pines in 2008 was one of Tiger's defining victories, but it is reasonable to ask if he might be closer to Jack's 18 majors had he skipped that one on doctor's advice and avoided some of the injury problems to follow?
Turns out Adam Scott sent Justin Rose a text on Sunday at the US Open, telling his friend this was "our time". Makes you wonder who might come next in the about-time-he-won-one year we're having at the majors.
Muirfield, Scotland, is the next stop. Guess who bagged a top 10 last time the Open was played there? Sergio Garcia. Now wouldn't that be a story.
We knew Justin Rose had the golf smarts, composure and driving accuracy to challenge at Merion, but we also knew he was 15 years from his unveiling at the 1998 Open Championship and still not a major winner.
That kind of a wait breeds a suffocating doubt if you let it. Could he really win this one? Would he ever win one? Or was Rose's destiny just to be billed as part of English golf's under-achieving, majors-shy, golden generation?
Starting his round on Sunday, Rose was seeking to become the first English major winner since Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters - a gap of 17 years and 68 championships, punctuated by countless near-misses and capitulations. For post-1966 English football at the World Cup, read post-1996 English golf at the majors.
Tiger has won 14 since Faldo last put on the green jacket, Northern Ireland four. Even Scotland have got in on the act. Yet somehow a nation blessed by the combined talents of Rose, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey had gone empty-handed. Until now that is.
Rose stood tall in Philadelphia to triumph. He talked of the inspiration he'd taken from Adam Scott's breakthrough win at the Masters and fans of English golf will be hoping Rose can provide the same impetus for his fellow countrymen going forward.
Luke Donald's challenge faded at Merion
When Darren Clarke won the Open in 2011 he pointed to Padraig Harrington's three major wins as the catalyst for a golden era in Irish golf. "I believe he is the one who inspired Graeme McDowell first, then Rory McIlroy and then me to go on and do what we have done," Clarke said.
McIlroy was clearly inspired by G-Mac's US Open win in 2010 to win in 2011; South African Charl Schwartzel said the same of Louis Oosthuizen's Open win the year before he won the Masters. There's nothing like seeing a friend achieve something to realize it's possible to do it yourself - some of the fear is replaced by a hunger to emulate them.
Poulter, Westwood and Donald all took to Twitter to celebrate Rose's US Open in on Sunday night. All three should have at least one major of their own by now, but their frustrations will be refocused by what the 32-year-old Rose has achieved.
Not only is the English major wait over, but a group of extremely talented players will have new belief they too can make it happen on the biggest stage. Judging by recent trends and runs of nations at the majors, don't be surprised if we see another English winner before 2013 is out.
It could very well be Rose himself of course.
All hail Merion
Merion was a captivating venue for the 113th US Open. Some courses are just cheap-shot brutal for the sake of it, but Merion's test is so cleverly constructed that is delivers a layout that can be played in many different ways.
To have the winner at +1 tells you everything you need to know about the difficulty level. That the players came away having loved the course tells you we'll be back as soon as possible.
Phil Mickelson is the patron saint of US Open near-misses. Five times a runner-up, Lefty has flirted with the tournament like no other, yet his softest of hands are still yet to grasp the trophy.
Until now, Mickelson has had to make do with the consolation of being America's most beloved golfer (I didn't say popular) of his generation. Could this be the week that finally changes?
I'm tempted to say it can happen. Not only will Mickelson come off a good week at the FedEx St Jude Classic, but he'll be met by a soggy and more vulnerable golf course than we expected. We all know he can be wayward off the tee, but Mickelson in the right mood is capable of going after Merion.
I was wading through the mud at Bethpage in 2010 when he shot a brilliant 66 on the Friday to prompt a challenge. Mickelson, not for the first time, let things slip from there, but his ability to go low in wet conditions may bode well for the days ahead in Philadelphia.
As Luke Donald pointed out on Tuesday, rain will make holding greens at Merion easier and missing them not quite such a big problem.
The invitation to attack will be difficult for Mickelson to resist - especially armed with his (obligatory mention) genius short game. The question, of course, is whether Lefty can avoid the diabolical rough from the tee or whether his driving accuracy ranking of 160th on the PGA Tour will bury his challenge knee-deep in wild grass.
Mickelson in fist-pumping mood at Bethpage in 2010
Mickelson may allay some of those fears by leaning on his hybrid off the tee. Donald said he only used driver five times in his practice round, while Ernie Els suggested players could still make a slew of birdies at Merion this week if they chose irons over drivers.
Nobody on the PGA Tour has been better at making birdies than Mickelson this year (Stats here).
So let's say it happens - that Lefty ends his US Open hex and brings home a first major since his Masters win in 2010. Not only would American golf fans have the ideal man to celebrate Father's Day with (a father who delayed his practice to attend his daughter's graduation no less), but we'd be served a nice little plot twist with it.
Yet again, this is supposed to Tiger's redemption week. What a story it would be if his old buddy Phil stopped that happening. Forget about Tiger and Rory, or Tiger and Sergio, there would be no more compulsive viewing than us finally getting to see those two going at it late on a Sunday, at a major.
The smart money is still on Tiger, but my hashtag for Merion is #teamphil.
If you want to look outside the obvious, how about a small punt on Tim Clark? The South African drives like a demon and is another who performed well at Bethpage in 2010. Clark is around 80-1 with some bookmakers - not bad for a guy who finished 11th at the Masters just a couple of months ago.
Golf's most devoured duo, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, were always going to be drawn together at the US Open. Adam Scott's green jacket got him in on the act and all eyes will be on three men from three continents for the first two rounds at Merion.
In terms of pairings to watch, there's that one and then all the others. But that doesn't mean the others won't throw up their own intrigue. One of them may very well throw up this year's winner. Here are my 'other' groups to watch on Thursday, along with their tee times.
1. Ian Poulter, Boo Weekley, Jason Dufner - 12.55pm BST
Born-again Boo (pronounced "Booooooooo") was a winner at the Crowne Plaza Invitational and has made 13 cuts from 15 starts on the PGA Tour in 2013. Could this be the year we see an unlikely run at a major from one of golf's most unlikely stars? Ian Poulter, meanwhile, is struggling for form and will be looking for inspiration. Jason Dufner is in a similar position.
Matteo Manassero could be ready for a run at a major
2. Rickie Fowler, Matteo Manassero, Jason Day - 1.06pm BST
The obligatory young bucks group. Italy's great hope Manassero comes fresh off his win at the BMW PGA Championship, while Day will be looking to better his third-placed finish at Augusta. Fowler is due a strong run at a major - it's about time he delivered on his promise.
3. Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose - 12.22pm BST
American Kuchar is perhaps the hottest golfer in the world right now, having followed his runner-up finish at the Crowne Plaza with a win at the Memorial. At 34 he's entering the conversation for "best player who hasn't won a major". Rose is another in that category and has a precision game that could work at Merion. Snedeker makes it three fancied players in the same group.
4. Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Tim Clark - 12.33pm BST
This all-South African group carries its most obvious threat in Schwartzel and Oosthuizen - major winners who have both been playing consistently well all year. Could Clark be the relative old-timer (he's still only 37) who makes a charge? His accuracy off the tee makes him a potential contender at Merion, where finding fairways is vital.
Mr Steady from the tee, Jim Furyk
5. Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell, Zach Johnson - 6.03pm BST
McDowell and Furyk are among the most accurate drivers in golf, which helps explain why both have a US Open title and makes both dangerous in Philadelphia. G-Mac's recent Volvo World Match Play triumph bodes well for his confidence also. Johnson went low at the Crowne Plaza, but doesn't typically do well at US Opens.
Time for something a little different. I could have gone at Tiger's ugly back-nine 44 at Muirfield Village, Matt Kuchar's major credentials, or the "only-in-golf" metal spike ruling that knocked Lee Janzen out of US Open qualifying, but sometimes we forget golf's about having fun.
This week is all about entertainment. In the course of the last year I've spent many hours trawling the best examples of golf showboating on the internet and I want to share my favourites with you. Sit back, relax, and be ready to be amazed.
1. Phil Mickelson's backwards flop shot - The stuff of golf viral legend, this ridiculous clip sees Lefty play the kind of shot that makes him a genius. Once you've watched it, search for more of Mickelson flopping over his coaches.
2. Bubba's banana shots - This CNN exhibition with Bubba Watson, post his 2012 Masters win, is must-see for all golfers who dream of the perfect draw and fade. Watson moves the ball on command in both directions, making the game look remarkably easy.
3. The world's longest par-three - Legend Golf and Safari Club in South Africa achieved a notable PR coup by unveiling a hole that plays 1,400 feet down from the tee to a green shaped like the continent of Africa. The reward for a hole-in-one is a cool $1 million.
4. Nine putts in one hole - Campbell University students hit the mainstream with their synchronised putting exploits recently. The video went viral and no doubt has golf groups all over the world trying to mimic it.
5. Top of the flops - Promising young American golfer Jon McLean scored two aces in nine holes in 2011. In 2009 he was recorded doing this...
6. The longest putt - Legend has it TV presenter Terry Wogan held the record for the longest televised putt before Dave Pelz sank this gargantuan beast in 2009. Pelz was dishing out putting tips apparently - this being a pretty good one.
The commentary here makes the clip. "This is over 200 feet of putt. That is longer than church on NFL Sunday." Indeed.
The first thing to note about this year's US Open venue (aside from those strange wicker baskets posing as flags) is the length, or lack of it. Merion's East Course will play just 6,966 yards, short by professional standards and potentially at the mercy of the big hitters.
This being a USGA event, however, measures will be taken to avoid a potential humbling of the layout. The rough is deep and dense enough that balls will be lost in it, with a heavy price to pay for those who miss the fairways. The thick stuff comes quickly too, rising up just feet from the edge of the first cut.
Then there are the greens. According to SI's Michael Bamberger, writing for Golf.com, Merion's tight putting surfaces are "as tricky as greens anywhere", with "wicked movement".
There are 120 "steep-faced, Scottish-style bunkers" also out to get you, according to the Miami Herald. It might be short, but the Philadelphia track is most definitely armed.
Let's take a look at some of the key holes, starting with the par-five 4th (below), which is an epic 628 yards from tee to green. Holding the sloped fairway won't be easy, and those who do are still best advised to play safe rather than taking on the huge bunker ahead.
Another hole sure to bring drama is the short 10th, a 303-yard, drivable par four. The shot required to find the green from the tee is a sharp draw, with the risk of finding yourself in thick rough looming large.
Next we go to the par-four 15th, which requires a fade from the tee box for the right-handers. The hole plays a modest 411 yards, but with out-of-bounds to the left and a combination of bunkers and thick rough on the right, making par won't be easy.
Even those who hit the perfect drive may falter. According to the USGA course guide, "the 15th is one of Merion's most severely sloped greens."
Finally, a look at the 18th, which the USGA believe will provide the hardest test for players during the US Open. Watch the flyover for the full effect, but suffice to say it's a daunting drive followed by a daunting approach. Get both right and a daunting putt awaits.
And that's your lot for now. What's clear is that Merion will provide a unique test to the field next month and the man who follows in the footsteps of Olin Dutra (1934), Ben Hogan (1950), Lee Trevino (1971) and David Graham (1981) and wins a US Open there will have fully earned it.
That being said, Rory McIlroy's record low US Open score of 16 under from Congressional in 2011 may still be at risk, especially if conditions are damp and soft. The last time the US Open visited Merion, in 1981, Australian Graham won at seven under. The course has been given more teeth since then (by Tom Fazio and Tom Marzolf), but so has the equipment of those taking it on.
The above course shots are taken from the official USGA guide to Merion.
For those who have tracked his career it was no surprise to see Italy's Matteo Manassero win at Wentworth. The only surprise was the bright-eyed boy who won the British Amateur and kept Tom Watson company for two rounds at the 2009 Open Championship is still but 20 years old.
Manassero was 16 when we got our formal introduction. "Golf is a game for life, you are never too young to start and you are never too old to play," said Watson, who aged 60 that week came within one bad shot of the most remarkable major win in history.
Since then Manassero has won four European tour events - two of them in play-offs - and climbed inside the world's top 30. He's also addressed concern over his lack of power from the tee, by indulging a strict diet and hitting the gym more regularly to add distance with the driver (more on that here).
On this form he'll be part of Paul McGinley's Ryder Cup team in 2014. It's surely only a matter of time before Manassero threatens to win a major also. From here there are almost limitless possibilities, which puts Manassero in the class of golf's brightest young talents. Here are my six to watch.
6. Guan Tianlang
A 14-year-old who makes the cut at the Masters has two paths - a glittering career that sees him realise his potential or a journey to anticlimax. Guan carries the burden of expectancy, but comes armed with a prolific talent and a remarkably calm head on his shoulders. That and the whole of China behind him.
Ishikawa, the Bashful Prince
5. Ryo Ishikawa
The 'Bashful Prince' has not come close to delivering on the hype that accompanied his introduction. He's still only 21 though and recent performances at the Masters and Byron Nelson point towards Ishikawa's game moving in the right direction. The talent is unquestionably there if he can channel it.
4. Peter Uihlein
Uihlein was a dominant American amateur who topped the rankings and won numerous accolades before turning professional in 2011. Since then he's been an adventurer on the European Tour's Challenge circuit. As this Golfweek profile explores, the 23-year-old has taken a "road rarely travelled to success" by US players. Judging by his form this season, it could well be headed towards the accomplishments his game demands.
3. Rickie Fowler
At 24, Fowler's talent is undoubted. He should have won more than once on the PGA Tour by now, but some bloom later than others. Providing he keeps working on his game Fowler may one day shine as bright as the clothes he wears on the course.
2. Matteo Manassero
We've already touched on Italy's great hope. Manassero's victory at the BMW PGA could be the springboard to a genuine challenge at one of the three majors to come this summer.
1. Rory McIlroy
McIlroy labelled Manassero a "phenom" after his win on Sunday. The Irishman is still only 24 himself, and still in the fledgling years of a career that promises to rank among the best the game has seen. Two majors are already in the bag; the only question is how many more will follow.
It doesn't matter what Sergio Garcia says next. It doesn't matter that he was quick to issue an apology. A "fried chicken" jibe in the direction of Tiger Woods is instinctively read in a certain way and it doesn't read well. It will stay with Garcia for the rest of his career.
The Woods-Garcia spat got ugly on Tuesday. Sergio saying Tiger was right to call him a "whiner" and that it was the first honest thing he'd said in 15 years was amusing; Sergio inviting accusations of racism with a stupid comment in front of gathered European Tour players and officials was nothing of the sort.
Sergio has never had much of a filter. He prides himself on being "truthful" and said this week his honesty is why "most of the people love me and some hate me". He may find a good few more in the latter category after what he said at Wentworth.
This was always a feud that meant more to Garcia than Woods. Tiger's 14 majors and his habit of putting Sergio in his place on the golf course have done most of the talking for his side. When asked whether he'd made a call to Garcia after their most recent clash at the Players, Woods' refused to indulge the matter further. "No", was all he had to say.
Sparks may fly if these two are paired together in the near future
Garcia would have done well to follow his lead. Instead, he played to the audience at Wentworth and tried to give them what they wanted - another shot at Woods. But with the "fried chicken" remark he both insulted his bitter rival and embarrassed the entire room - not to mention all those with a financial stake in his career.
BMW, sponsors of this week's PGA Championship, must be fuming. Their prestigious event has now been overshadowed by what will widely be defined, intentional or not, as a racial slur from one of its star attractions against the most famous golfer in the world.
Before yesterday we were tempted to take Sergio's side. After this, it's Woods with the moral high ground and in comparison to the Spaniard he's coming across as a man of integrity and class. His response on Twitter was measured and spoke to his maturity. He damned the comment, but refused to sensationalise the issue further.
The comment that was made wasn’t silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate...— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods)May 22, 2013
I’m confident that there is real regret that the remark was made.— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) May 22, 2013
The Players ended nearly two weeks ago and it’s long past time to move on and talk about golf.— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) May 22, 2013
Woods knows he got to Sergio, and this incident will feed his belief he's right back where he was in his prime. He's getting under peoples' skin and prompting them to fall to pieces on the course and off it. He's done both to Garcia in a matter of days.
Garcia's reputation has hit an all-time low. Just when it seemed he was winning people over, El Nino has gone and done what we've seen him do so many times at the majors - lose his cool and throw his lead away.
As we saw during the celebratory 2012 Ryder Cup press conference, it's a mistake to give this man a stage. There's still too much of the little boy ruling his head and words are powerful things if you choose the wrong ones.
“Sometimes when we’re not on our game, we have a tendency to, I’m not going to say make wrong decisions, but we have a tendency to question everything in our lives that we are doing and sometimes we have to make changes.”
That was Graeme McDowell reacting to the news Rory McIlroy is leaving the management company they share, Horizon, to set up his own firm (report here). You don't have to read between the lines to see his point and a lot of people from the outside looking in will share it.
McIlroy has, by his very high standards, had an underwhelming start to 2013. He's been slow to adjust to the new clubs that came with his mega-money Nike deal and suffered a couple of notable embarrassments - the walk-off at the Honda Classic and his third-round 79 at the Masters.
Is it really just the clubs? Or is there something bigger at work here? Whatever the root of his mini-malaise, McIlroy has come to the conclusion that leaving Horizon and becoming the focus of a bespoke operation with his father Gerry on staff is the way forward.
Horizon will play nice publicly, but the Dublin-based firm must be raging behind closed doors. Having tempted McIlroy away from ISM and the man who launched his career, Chubby Chandler, they were by his side for rampant success last season.
Never look back. McIlroy and former manager Chubby Chandler
McIlroy won the European Tour's Race to Dubai, was the leading money earner on the US Tour and picked up a major at the US PGA Championship. Oh, and he was part of Europe's triumphant Ryder Cup team.
Off the course things have been going fairly nicely too, you'd think. McIlroy's Nike deal was announced in January this year and he's since inked lucrative partnership agreements with Bose and Omega. Global brand Rory is soaring. More cash is flowing in that McIlroy can possibly have time to spend.
When they pitch for future clients Horizon will have McIlroy as a case study in what they're capable of. So why wouldn't the 24-year-old stay put and reap more of the same? Are his needs really that different to those of McDowell, who's in the form of his life and appears about as contented as a man could be?
Perhaps McDowell's the issue - that McIlroy is in such demand these days he needs more attention than can be shared. Perhaps he also feels the kind of shelter he needs between himself and the world can only be provided by family and close friends. Conor Ridge's comments after McIlroy's walk off at the Honda may have pushed him in that direction.
We can only hope McIlroy's inspiration for the move comes from a well considered place and not - as McDowell seems to believe - just an urge to change something, anything, in the hope it gets him back winning golf tournaments again.
To be fair to McIlroy, things turned out pretty well the last time he changed management. But you can't help sense a little desperation is behind announcing a move like this at such a key point in the golfing calendar. It's the timing that makes you wonder if he's getting this one wrong.
We all saw it coming. Sergio Garcia's already long and winding script has witnessed some notable victories, but the boy who would be Seve's heir remains to most of us defined by his defeats. Another came on Sunday, as three balls in the water ended his Players challenge. Tiger Woods was only too happy to benefit.
It was Woods who beat the precocious 19-year-old Garcia to the US PGA Championship in 1999. Padraig Harrington has twice denied him a major - at the 2007 Open and 2008 US PGA. Sergio has beaten himself on the biggest stage more times than we can remember.
He's still just 33, but it already feels as though we've lived through a lifetime of frustration with our old friend Sergio. He's not the best at hiding it either.
Garcia has pouted, thrown tantrums and made his share of enemies along the way. "He’s not so much a bad guy as a total spoiled brat Alibi-Ike with a negative whiney attitude. Other than that, he’s okay by me," wrote Missy Rosenberg in a bitter takedown for the Washington Post this week.
Garcia went to ugly war with Tiger at the weekend. He accused the World No. 1 of distracting him by pulling a club during his backswing on Saturday and the bad feeling overflowed from there (more on that here). From the reaction of both players we can assume with absolute certainty they can't stand each other.
"It's not real surprising that he's complaining about something," said Woods after the third-round incident. Twenty-four hours later he celebrated beating the Spaniard to the trophy by saying it was nice to "play well when he really needed to" - a golfing gut punch if ever there was one.
Garcia doesn't do defeat quietly. After swinging at the world's best player he went down swinging into the water. Woods emerged looking like a 15th major was just around the corner; Garcia like a maiden major was as far away as ever.
At least that's what we're programmed to think. Clifton Brown, writing for PGATour.com, provides an alternative take. He believes Garcia's game is as good as it's ever been - that he can use what happened at Sawgrass as Adam Scott did his meltdown at the Open last year to inspire his Masters win.
Only time will tell, but based on what happened between Sergio and Tiger at The Players we can only hope the pair come together as many times as possible for the remainder of their careers. What we have here is truly the makings of a rivalry to enthral.
Woods was on the losing side at the 2006 Ryder Cup
Tiger and Phil are best friends who hunt and fish together compared to these two. Tiger and Rory, with their Nike love-in, are practically a married couple. Maybe the Woods rival we've looked so hard for all these years is a golfer whose trajectory has followed a very different course.
"He's not the nicest guy on tour," said Garcia of Woods in Florida. And you can almost imagine a hundred others nodding in agreement, but smiling politely as the great man walked past them a few minutes later.
Like him or loathe him, you can't help but admire Sergio's total honesty in everything he does. What you see is what you get - good and bad. To his Ryder Cup teammates he's a hero on the course and an entertainer off it. To many in the game he's a surly kid who never grew up and still doesn't know how to conduct himself.
Tiger's not perfect, of course. Stir the flawed and gifted pair together and what you have is a potential rivalry as compelling as golf has seen for a generation.
Imagine the intensity should Garcia and Woods be matched in a play-off at the US Open - one man looking to end his drought and prove he's not finished; the other to finally stake his claim and exorcise his demons just as Scott did at Augusta.
Based on the way these two men are playing it might happen. And if not at Merion then surely at a major between here at the next Ryder Cup. We really could be looking at the game's next big rivalry, 17 years after it first aired at the 1999 US PGA.
After all that's come before, what a story it would be for Sergio to win a first major at Tiger's expense.