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Is Tiger Woods back with major win? He says it won’t be enough

Tiger Woods hitting tee shot during practice round Tuesday will be joined by Phil MickelsBubbWatsfor first two rounds U.S. Open.

Tiger Woods, hitting a tee shot during a practice round Tuesday, will be joined by Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open. | Andrew Redington~Getty Images

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Site: San Francisco.

Schedule: Thursday-Sunday.

Course: The Olympic Club, Lake Course (7,170 yards, par 70).

Television: ESPN (Thursday-Friday, noon-
2 p.m., 4-9 p.m.), Ch. 5 (Thursday-Friday, 2-4 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 3-9 p.m.).

Updated: July 14, 2012 6:38AM

SAN FRANCISCO — By Tiger Woods standards, it was pretty normal stuff. No excruciating questions about his personal life. No inquisitions about changing his inner circle, or even his swing. His balky knee was a non-issue.

Love him or hate him, Tiger Woods enters the U.S. Open looking like he’s as good a threat to win his 15th major championship as he has been in a while. With a win at the Olympic Club, he could add another footnote: the U.S. Open hat trick in his home state of California, where he has won at Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines.

Yet, the man who’s in the discussion for best golfer of all-time sounded like a player who can’t win with fans and media after his practice round Tuesday at the Olympic Club.

Asked if his win at the Memorial proved he’s back to his old self, or if he needs to win a major to silence the critics, Woods smiled and said, “Which question do you want me to answer?”

Does he have to win a major to prove he’s back?

“Even if I do win a major championship, it will still be, ‘You’re not to 18 yet.’ Or, ‘When will you get to 19?’ ” he said. “It’s always something with you guys. I’ve dealt with that my entire career, ever since I was an amateur. It hasn’t changed.”

Woods, whose last major title came at Torrey Pines in 2008, once again will be the center of attention beginning Thursday, when he takes another stab at closing in on Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles.

That’s especially true because Woods will be joined by fellow superstar Phil Mickelson and colorful Masters champion Bubba Watson on the first tee at 9:33 a.m.

Key question: Can Woods keep it out of the woods?

“It’s going to be like Sunday at the Masters,” said Watson, gearing for huge galleries and the energizing Tiger-Phil spotlight. “Hopefully, I’m not going to be focused on what they’re doing. We’re all going to try to be hitting these little fairways and these little greens and somehow two-putt. It will be fun, though. It’s two legends.’’

This will be the third time that Woods and Mickelson have been paired together for the first two rounds of a major. In the previous two — the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah and at Torrey Pines in 2008 — Woods wound up being the champion.

On the other hand, the last time they were paired together, in the final round at Pebble Beach in February, Mickelson fired a 64 and won the tournament.

“It’s fabulous,” Mickelson said of the pairing. “I get excited to play with Tiger. I love it. We all do. He gets the best out of me. One of the issues I’ve had this year is that I’ve been a little mentally lethargic on Thursday and Friday. I won’t be this week.”

Even the threesome of the top-ranked player in the world (Luke Donald), the defending U.S. Open champion (Rory McIlroy) and arguably the best player who hasn’t won a major (popular Englishman Lee Westwood) accepts its co-star status.

“If I was a golf fan, I’d want to watch that group,” McIlroy said. “I’m sure you’ll see some fireworks.’’

Luckily, fans won’t have to choose. The Euro trio tees off at 3:29 p.m. Thursday.

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