Woods playing own numbers game at U.S. O

June 11 [Tue], 2013, 12:26
By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - Tiger Woods has won a tour-leading four times this season and reclaimed the number one world ranking, but those are not the numbers that matter most to him.

Nineteen, five and 15 will fuel Woods this week at Merion Golf Club, site of the U.S. Open golf championship starting on Thursday.

It has been five years since Woods won his last major in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

Since then there have been 19 major championships contested and Woods has been unable to add major No. 15 to his resume in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his record haul of 18 majors.

That is the measuring stick for Woods, who has looked up to the Golden Bear's list of achievements since he was a child with a chart of Nicklaus's successes tapped to the wall.

Since the 2008 U.S. Open, of course, a lot has happened with Woods.

He played that championship virtually on one leg, with a torn ligament in his left knee and a double stress fracture in his left leg, yet he willed himself to a 19-hole playoff victory over Rocco Mediate in one of his most memorable triumphs.

Right after that, he underwent surgery and rehabilitation and shut down for the rest of the year.

The next year his personal life and image broke down with the revelations of a long string of extramarital affairs that ended his marriage and sent him into a self-imposed exile from golf.

Woods focused on healing himself and painstakingly rebuilt his golf swing with new coach Sean Foley.

"There were a few years there where I wasn't exactly healthy and I missed a bunch of major championships," Woods said last month while promoting his AT&T Championship after he won the Players Championship.

"Now that my game has come around, I've shown some signs of it last year.

"I was in the lead at the U.S. Open after a couple days; PGA I was right there; the Masters was going pretty good until that nice little wedge shot on 15," he said about the second-round shot he hit into the par-five green that bounced off the pin and into a water hazard. "I was leading that tournament, as well.

"I know what I can do when I'm healthy. I think I can play this game pretty good. So I needed to get healthy, and that took a while. Once I felt strong enough and explosive enough again, then the changes were starting to be implemented piece by piece."

Woods's romantic life is on the mend with his going public about dating Olympic skiing champion Lindsey Vonn, while he acknowledges he has had to make concessions in his preparation to play golf in view of past injuries and his age of 37.

"That's one of the reasons why I changed my swing, to make it a little bit easier on my body," he said. "I don't go out there and run the 30 miles a week like I used to. I'm just too old to do that now.

"But I still will do the explosive training...all the strength training. I'm stronger now than I ever have been."

Woods, who lost millions from defections by sponsors in the aftermath of his public scandal, has returned to the top of Forbes' list of highest earning athletes with $78.1 million earnings last year including $65 million in endorsements.

Gratifying and reassuring, but again not the numbers that really matter to Woods.

Five. Fifteen. Nineteen.

The clock is ticking for Woods, who is determined to sound the official alarm to rivals that he is back by ending his major title drought in the U.S. Open at Merion.

(Editing by Gene Cherry)