Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Surprise! Furyk plans to defend his title

By Doug Ferguson
The Associated Press

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - Jim Furyk rolled up his navy blue sweater and showed two purple spots on the top of his left hand which were made more visible by the chilly air Monday at Shinnecock Hills.

"Nothing dramatic," he said.

Dramatic was seeing Furyk at the U.S. Open, strolling down the first fairway with Vijay Singh and Darren Clarke for a nine-hole practice round to prepare to defend his title.

Those small, purple marks came from surgery three months ago on his left wrist to repair torn cartilage. Furyk was the first to concede it probably would knock him out of the U.S. Open, and some even raised questions whether he would be fit for the Ryder Cup in September.


"If I'm not feeling like I can go out pain-free and swing like I need to swing to play this golf tournament, I'm not going to try," Furyk said. "Obviously, being here is a big step. I'm here because it's a possibility. It's a good possibility."

Furyk was in jeopardy of becoming the first U.S. Open champion since Payne Stewart to be unable to defend his title. Stewart died in a plane crash four months after winning the '99 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

But his recovery was slightly ahead of schedule from the time he had surgery March 22.

He didn't lose as much muscle strength as he feared. His range of motion returned quickly. It wasn't long before he was chipping and putting, each day able to do a little more.

The turning point came last Wednesday, when he played his first full round at Marsh Landing Country Club near his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Then, he played another 18 holes Friday.

"At that point, I had my wife looking into where we're going to stay," Furyk said. "I talked to the surgeon on the phone. I said, 'Am I crazy to think this is a shot?' He said to give it a try."

But the doctor also told him to be smart about the decision to play, and to be realistic about his chances.

That should be the easy part.

Furyk hasn't played since missing the cut at the Sony Open, the biggest sign something was wrong with his wrist. A year ago, he came to Olympia Fields outside Chicago as a straight-shooter that some thought had an excellent chance to win his first major. Despite bogeys on the last two holes, Furyk tied the 72-hole record of 272 at the U.S. Open and won by three shots over Stephen Leaney.

Now, Furyk is hoping to simply play 72 holes.

"Last year, I was thinking of winning the tournament," he said. "This year, I'm thinking of starting the tournament."

Not many thought that was even possible.

Furyk turned a few heads when he showed up at Shinnecock Hills on Saturday, and players still were amazed to see him dressed in gray slacks and a navy sweater, with caddie Mike "Fluff" Cowan at his side.

"I didn't think Jim was going to be able to play because of the injury," Corey Pavin said. "I'm glad he's able to defend his title. I think that's great. Hopefully, he'll be healthy enough to play and be strong enough."

He is in the traditional group, with U.S. Amateur champion Nick Flanagan and British Open champion Ben Curtis, on the 10th tee Thursday at 8 a.m.

"It's good to see Jim back," Curtis said. "From what I heard, it (his return) was the Ryder Cup at first, then it got down to the PGA, then it was the British Open, then it was the Western Open. So, I guess I'm not surprised."

Monday was the third consecutive day Furyk has played golf, and he still wonders about his stamina. He also has to consider the rough, which can cause serious injury.

Just ask Tiger Woods.

As a wispy, 19-year-old amateur playing in his first U.S. Open, Woods tried to hack out of the thick grass and wound up tearing ligaments in his wrist. He had to withdraw three holes later.

Furyk said he is not in danger of doing further damage to his risk unless he does something "violent" with his swing. He has found the rough during his practice rounds, but hasn't taken any big cuts out of it.

"Everyone is afraid of it because they can't hit out of there," Furyk said. "But I really felt like I was scared to hit it in the fescue because, 'Oh, no I can't hit it out of there,' then I wouldn't be here."

Then again, Furyk holds no allusions of winning.

The last time he was under this much scrutiny - and felt halfway decent about his game - was at the Presidents Cup last November. And he has gone five months without hitting a shot in competition.

"I'm hoping to go out there and surprise a few people and play relatively well," he said. "Am I here like last year, trying to win? Absolutely not. I'm an idiot, but not that big of an idiot."

Furyk has only missed one U.S. Open since he turned pro, at Shinnecock Hills in 1995. He recently joked it had become his Kryptonite, but he was determined to play this week - because it's a great course, because it's the U.S. Open and because he's the defending champion.

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