FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – On top of a golf cart adjacent to the sixth hole of Bethpage Black, a man slept. His was no ordinary sleep. A little girl splashed in the mud alongside him. Conversations continued on within earshot. The best golfer in the world stood 50 feet away. Snoozer didn't so much as flinch a nose hair.
The man was a maintenance worker on the Black Course. His crew spent all night making sure the 109th U.S. Open would be played, drying the fairways, squeegeeing the greens and taking every bit of horticultural liberty to keep the course playable. They succeeded.
Tiger Woods, the best golfer in the world, didn't. The difference between an interesting major championship and one at which, say, a course employee falls asleep on the job depends on Tiger's standing, and with 11 strokes separating him from the leader after the second round, it's rather evident that this waterlogged Open is Ambien synthesized into a golf tournament.
As the PGA Tour found out when Woods missed half a year following knee surgery, its tournaments are at their best when he contends. Were Tiger not throwing his birdie-bogey yo-yo and stagnating toward the back of the pack, surely the narcoleptic maintenance man would've found reason to peel open his eyelids. Instead, he dreamed of sheep or lawnmowers or whatever else a golf-course-addled mind conjures, and Tiger went about his merry mediocre way, finishing his second round at a 3-over 143, only a shot above the cut line.
"You have to do better than that," Woods said, and, well, duh. Not just for his edification. An on-his-game Woods fills majors with the drama and intrigue they deserve. This Open has clunked from the get-go, Mother Nature barfing all over the Black Course and rendering it among the easiest in the Open's 109-year history.
Ricky Barnes now holds the Open record for a two-round score after moving to a tournament-leading 8-under par. When Ricky Barnes was last relevant – he won the U.S. Amateur in 2002 – the United States had been in Iraq for a month. Lucas Glover is one stroke behind him. When Lucas Glover was last relevant … actually, relevancy and Lucas Glover have been mutually exclusive to this juncture.
Woods is way back, tied for 34th and with little hope, especially thanks to the course's conditions that favored the other side of the draw. The weather held enough for Woods to finish his second round Saturday afternoon and catch a couple hours of downtime before heading back to the 10th tee to start his third round. Woods saved a poor drive for par, walked up to the 11th hole and took cover under his umbrella.
Heavy sheets of rain started pelting the ground, and officials blew their airhorns, signaling a suspension of play. Tiger was told the storm would pass in 10 minutes. It did. Not without leaving significant damage. The Black Course was like a sponge that was filled to its capacity, and the extra water made it overflow.
Greens filled with puddles. Fairways sloshed with every step. Groundskeepers implored people off the course, even the parts that hadn't seen a ball all week. Bethpage was in full lockdown mode, because to get ready for a 36-hole marathon Sunday – weather permitting, of course, and rain isn't exactly the cooperating sort – another all-nighter beckoned.
Woods, meanwhile, was whisked off the course that turned the normal relationship on its head: it tamed him. His soggy first round had been enough of a disaster: a 4-over par 74. To ensure a meaningful Sunday, Tiger needed to scrounge his way back to even, and he presented himself with opportunities aplenty.
Birdie putt after birdie putt, Woods lined up with a 15th major victory still tethered to his mind, even if by only an old, rusted carabineer. He missed 10 such putts, and though Woods converted on four birdies, he offset their progress with three bogeys, including one on his final hole.
"The putts I hit well didn't go in," Woods said. "And the putts I hit poorly weren't even close. The frustrating thing is you have to hit the putt so hard. … It's hard to make yourself hit the putts that hard considering this is a U.S. Open."
By day's end, Woods had shot a 1-under 69, a wonderful score at most Opens and positively middling at 2009's version. A Canadian amateur named Nick Taylor shot a 65 on Saturday. So did a Japanese player named Azuma Yano. Three more came in at 66. Perhaps Tiger's ultimate indignity: David Duval finished six strokes ahead of him.
Woods can't be perfect. He's not going to win every major. Such expectations are too much. At the same time, it's impossible to forget last year's Open, when Tiger and Rocco Mediate dueled to the end of the fourth round and through a 19-hole playoff. Even though Mediate lost, he will for the rest of his career be known as the man who fought Tiger hardest. So compelling is Tiger that he can deliver fame by proxy.
Provided his name sits atop the leaderboard, or at least near the top. Sundays at majors are supposed to be about Tiger. When will he make his run? And will the others in contention cower? And how, exactly, are you supposed to stop a man with superior talent, an enhanced mental game and a vast history of winning these tournaments?
Uh. Close your eyes?
Nah, that's just the solution of the poor guy splayed out across the golf cart, the one who wanted to see the real Tiger and instead got a cheap imitation. Woods still did his signature maneuvers. He spun his putter in his hand and got nearly parallel to the ground to look at putts and pumped his fist. It's just that someone replaced the regular Tiger with one who couldn't tap his finite reservoir of brilliance.
Too bad. The Open needs him. It keeps waking up to the same nightmare.