The U.S. Open will be played in Los Angeles this week for the first time in 75 years, and there is a predominant California theme to the event. Many of the top contenders at the tournament grew up nearby. More than a dozen in the field were raised in California or call it home.
All of which makes it seem almost wrong, or cruel, that the best California golfer in history will not be competing. Tiger Woods, who grew up in Cypress, Calif., about 30 miles from the site of this year’s national golf championship, is unable to play at the Los Angeles Country Club after ankle surgery in April. It will be the ninth major championship Woods has had to skip, or leave prematurely, since the harrowing 2021 car crash that nearly led to a leg amputation and has significantly inhibited Woods’s ability to play, and walk, a golf course since.
Not surprisingly, even in absentia, Woods’s presence is felt. Especially here. Especially at the U.S. Open, which Woods has won three times — usually in dramatic, unforgettable fashion.
Although, as Max Homa, a California native and the world’s seventh-ranked golfer, said as he practiced his chipping on Tuesday morning: “Tiger is so transcendent that you could argue that he’s especially missed at any event anywhere. But yeah, it does feel wrong that he’s not here. That’s fair to say if you look at the history of the game.”
Collin Morikawa, who was born in Los Angeles two months before Woods won his first major championship in 1997 and who has since won the P.G.A. Championship and British Open, said Woods’s influence on golf was so great that he wondered how many of today’s best players would even be playing the game this week if not for him.
“He’s maybe not the sole reason why we got involved in the game,” Morikawa said of Woods, and then added, “But for me growing up, he’s all I cared about.”
With a smile, Morikawa went on to describe how he had enjoyed getting to know major champions like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas in recent years.
“But I didn’t care about them when I was growing up — I really didn’t,” Morikawa said. “People ask me about the history of Rory winning this or certain guys winning that. I didn’t really care. I only cared about Tiger.
“So, yeah, I think he’s always missed. But he’s always going to impact this game in ways that we can’t even describe, in ways that we don’t even know.”
Woods, whose total of 15 major championship victories is second only to Jack Nicklaus’s 18 titles, has also seemed to save some of his most memorable performances for when the U.S. Open arrived in his home state.
In 2000, at Pebble Beach Golf Links, he won by an astounding 15 strokes, which set the event record for largest margin of victory. Eight years later at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego, Woods, who had not played for two months because of two stress fractures and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left leg, managed to tie for the tournament lead with Rocco Mediate after four grueling rounds.
A playoff the next day put Woods through 19 more taxing holes before he claimed the championship.
Those were Woods’s U.S. Open highlights, but he has also had six other top 10 finishes. The last decade, however, has largely reflected the decline in Woods’s physical well-being. Now 47, he last played the U.S. Open in 2020, when he missed the cut. In the previous nine U.S. Opens, he was in the field only five times. He missed the cut twice, and his best result was a tie for 21st.
Since his inspirational victory at the 2019 Masters, Woods has only completed four rounds at a major championship four times. Which brings to mind Woods’s plaintive comment on the eve of this year’s Masters: “I don’t know how many of these I have left.”
In that way, his absence at this week’s U.S. Open is another reminder that Woods is being forced to cede the spotlight he has commanded for more than 25 years.
But those following in his considerable wake are not allowing him to be forgotten.
“His presence in the game of golf is always known because he’s impacted this game in ways that some of us could only dream of,” Morikawa said. “For him, it’s just about getting healthy at this point. Who knows when we’re going to see him or not? I don’t think any of us take that for granted anymore.”
Late Tuesday morning, practicing with the Los Angeles skyline in the background, Homa was asked if California golfers had a sense of pride that Woods was one of them.
“Maybe it goes deeper,” Homa answered. “I find a sense of pride in the fact that the best golfer of all time grew up playing on a very average municipal golf course. So did I.
“I don’t know if it’s a California thing — but I do think that’s just cool.”