By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Swing coach Hank Haney, whose working relationship with Tiger Woods ended abruptly after the golfer's fall from grace, said his former employer looks ready to resume his climb up the majors list at next week's U.S. Open.
Woods has not won a major in five years, but the American is back in top form and putting better than ever, according to Haney, who broke with him after the 2009 revelations of a slew of extramarital affairs shattered the golfer's image.
"How can you pick anybody but Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open?" Haney told Reuters in a telephone interview on Friday from Manhattan where he was giving a clinic at a new Golfsmith store.
Woods won six majors in his six years of collaboration with Haney, but has not won one since notching his 14th major by winning the 2008 U.S. Open.
It has been a long road back for Woods, who was sidelined immediately after his 2008 triumph for knee surgery and then sidetracked by his personal crisis and a swing change he underwent with new coach Sean Foley.
Haney said Woods was back and that the intimidation factor he enjoyed over opponents during his heyday was re-emerging.
"He doesn't look like a different golfer to me," said Haney. "He looks like Tiger Woods. His short game this year and his putting have been great. That part of his game has improved dramatically.
"The rest of his game is right there. His ball striking is down a little bit. (But) the most important thing is putting. You can swing it all you want, you can strike it all you want. But you better putt.
"I think he's a clear favorite at the U.S. Open."
Woods, who has won four times in eight starts this year and regained the number one world ranking, leads the PGA Tour in scoring average and ranks near the top in putting categories.
Haney said Merion Golf Club, where the U.S. Open begins on Thursday, could prove to be the ideal site for Woods to resume his chase after Jack Nicklaus and his record haul of 18 major championships.
"I think it's great," Haney said about the short, cramped Merion layout being a fit for Woods. "He doesn't like to hit the driver.
"He's played a more conservative game, hitting irons and fairway woods off the tee. That's a disadvantage for him when other players are hitting their driver and hitting their driver well.
"But Merion is going to take the driver out of everybody's hands on certain holes and that has to be an advantage to Tiger."
Haney parted ways with Woods one month after the 2010 Masters, the first tournament the golfer played after his scandalous affairs were revealed late in 2009.
After rumbling rumors that the golf coach was on his way out, Haney posted a statement on his own website saying he had made a decision to move on to other things.
Haney said the rest of the field will be wary should Woods get off to a good start at Merion, nestled into a leafy town in suburban Philadelphia.
"The intimidation factor is creeping back in for sure," said Haney. "Especially when he gets on the lead. There's nobody that can close like Tiger Woods. Everybody knows that."
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Frank Pingue)