SAN FRANCISCO – Like a famous actor suddenly forgetting his line in front of a packed Broadway theatre or a concert pianist striking precisely the most awful note in front of a rapt Carnegie Hall audience, Tiger Woods stood over a chip shot in front of the steep, natural, densely populated amphitheatre at Olympic Club's closing hole, in the Saturday evening gloaming of the U.S. Open's third round, and absolutely flubbed a chip shot.
His golf ball nestled in a bad lie, his chip attempt went squirrelly, almost backward even. The sound of thousands of golf fans making the familiar U.S. Open "gallery gasp," as it were, was replaced by silence, and then a marveling.
Tiger Woods, in front of their very eyes, in his cream sweater and matching slacks, on a day that started with so much major-championship promise for one of the greatest players in golf history, just played himself out of a U.S. Open.
Two putts later, Tiger's 75 was complete, and the only thing left was to assess the dimensions of the disaster. There are so many ways to do so.
Let's start with the fact that of 72 players who made the cut, his 5-over score was better than only eight players. The players around him also in the late tee times, all of whom had to wonder on Saturday morning what a ball-controlling and disciplined Tiger Woods was going to unleash on the field, hammered him.
Jim Furyk, the 54-hole co-leader who played alongside Tiger, bested him by five with a 70. Graeme McDowell, the other 54-hole co-leader playing two groups ahead, beat Tiger by seven with a 68. Lee Westwood (67) blew Tiger away by eight, Fredrik Jacobson (68) by seven and even 17-year-old, braces-wearing, high-schooler Beau Hossler navigated Olympic's Lake Course five shots better than Tiger with a 70.
Ernie Els (68), Webb Simpson (68), Blake Adams (70), on and on … none of these players had any trouble adjusting to the speed of the greens – which Tiger cited as a persistent problem Saturday – or to always getting the bad break of the "half-club" distance, which Tiger also claimed as a woe.
The litany of reasons for poor play from Tiger on Saturday was so varied as to almost defy categorization of his sufferings. If you want to blame his putter – a decent place to start – you can cite his 34 putts, after averaging 30 the first two rounds, and three-putts on Nos. 3 and 8 to derail his round. The putter looked radioactively bad at times, with its wielder unsure, unsteady and certainly unconfident using it.
But to solely blame the putter means to ignore missing seven of 14 fairways, his poorest day driving the golf ball, despite sticking to the game plan of eschewing his driver on all but four holes. And to blame the driving of the golf ball means to ignore his persistent distance control issues, leading to missed greens on No. 1 (bogey), a poor chip on No. 6 (bogey), a disappointing par on No. 7 after missing on the wrong side of the green, a blown chance at birdie on No. 10 from the middle of the fairway, a drop-kicked tee shot on No. 14 that made the awful sound of earth first … should I go on?
I could. The badly pushed drive on No. 16 put him behind a cypress tree, and his punch out caught a limb. Tiger began to struggle with body language and muttered profanities, and he again missed his approach on the wrong side of the green. Bogey.
From "Position A" on the fairway at the birdie-able par-5 17th, he did not make birdie, and then came the coup de grace, the stubby, flubby chip on No. 18.
Stir that soup together and you have Tiger Woods plummeting from co-leader after 36 holes to a tie-14th after 54 holes, five back of the leaders. The idea of Tiger climbing over 13 players – including major winners Furyk, McDowell and Els – and making up five shots when the best round Olympic has yielded this week is a 66 stretches credulity.
Despite his standard protestations of competitive juices – "I'm definitely still in the ballgame, I'm only five back and that's certainly doable on this golf course," he said – we are left to wonder what happened to this formerly stone-cold killer of a major champion. Sunday evening will almost certainly mark the four-year calendar anniversary of his majors drought.
Certainly, part of the four-year drought can be chalked to injury, as his knee surgeries have prevented him from playing four of the last 16 majors. And just as certainly, the humiliation and mental setbacks from his personal scandal have cost him some. His switch to swing coach Sean Foley necessitated long stretches of time to acclimate, too. All true.
But something else has changed, too. Tiger has gotten older, and at 36, is not even close to the putter he once was. And maybe biggest of all, there remains the nagging thought that the "Ghost of Jack," or the pressure of trying to finally catch and topple Jack Nicklaus' all-time mark of 18 major championships has produced a wear, and a stress, on Tiger's game. There is no way to quantify what may be a mental issue, but things are different in Tiger's world when, for the first time in holding a 36-hole lead or co-lead at a major, he shoots over par in the third round. In fact, only six times in 43 all-time 36-hole leads or co-leads has he shot over par in the third round – none at majors – and only once a round as bad as 75.
Is the specter of catching Nicklaus – a lifelong quest that carries with it so much attendant baggage – the 15th club in his bag?
Weekends have been weird at majors for Tiger in the recent past. He shot 74 on the Sunday at this year's Masters, and 74 on the Saturday of the 2011 Masters. In contention at Pebble Beach on the Sunday, he shot 75. Now, we have Olympic's disaster, and that may not be too strong a word for a player who was so utterly under control his first 36 holes that he earned Saturday's final tee time.
He'll tee off Sunday at Olympic at 1:50 p.m. PT, next to Nationwide Tour player Casey Wittenberg. It's eighty minutes and nine pairings before Furyk and McDowell play as the 2012 U.S. Open's final twosome.
"I'm just going to have to shoot a good round," Woods said, "and post early and see what happens."
Problem is, everybody saw what happened on Saturday.
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