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Lateral Hazard: Where Tiger Woods shows us what an 'MDF' looks like

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Tiger Woods will try to bounce back from his ghastly performance at Torrey Pines next week in Dubai. (AP)

Have to admit, didn’t think the name ‘Scott Stallings’ was going to be a part of today’s column.

I mean, Torrey Pines, right? You start by spell-checking ‘Tiger’ and ‘Woods’, you rack your brain thinking of the new Tiger Angle at Torrey, and then you leave a little bit of your column for Phil Mickelson and you call it a day. That’s Torrey in January: Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, a little Phil, some more Tiger, and we’re off to Phoenix.

And yet, by Sunday morning on the bluffs above La Jolla, neither of those dudes was even on the premises. That’s a problem for a golf writer.

So I began plotting my Jordan Spieth Column, the one in which he becomes the third-youngest player in the history of the game to win twice on the PGA Tour. But then Spieth got stuck in neutral, and never found his rhythm, and quite frankly looked a little anxious in the spotlight.

That left the Gary Woodland Story. OK, we can work with that. Woodland is one of the biggest bombers on Tour, and at age 29 was perhaps ready to build on his two previous Tour wins to become a figure on the scene this year. But things got weird for Woodland on the 17th hole.

Next thing you know, Stallings, who started the day three shots back, is the champ. He shot a final-round 68, birdied No. 18 when others lost their nerve, and became one of those ‘Sunday Surprises’ that we can so often get on this deep, parity-laden PGA Tour. After Zach Johnson won at Kapalua to mark his territory, we’ve been blessed with Patrick Reed in the California desert and Jimmy Walker doing his veteran thing in Honolulu.

Add Stallings to the list, and some would argue the Tour is off to a less-than-scintillating start. But if players like Bubba Watson and Stewart Cink and Ian Poulter and Rickie Fowler – each of whom teed it up at Torrey, and other than Cink for a brief time, never got louder than a whisper – aren’t going to compete, then it’s time for the Walker-Reed-Stallings crowd to take over.

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Scott Stallings' Sunday 68 was just enough to top a crowded leaderboard. (AP)

I took some time to Yahoo-search my past columns on Stallings. I found an ode to his 2011 win at Greenbrier in his rookie year, and a couple of tragedies he endured in 2013 at the Humana Challenge (blowing a five-shot lead by getting wet on the 72nd hole) and at Hilton Head (chunking two chips on the back nine to let Boo Weekley walk away with a victory), so let’s be happy for Stallings, who putted his brains out to break from the crazy logjam of contenders at Torrey.

But if you aren’t overly familiar with Stallings’ game, don’t feel bad. He started the day ranked 112th in the world, and among American players, was looking up to names like Chesson Hadley and Brooks Koepka.

It makes you wonder what the heck happened to guys like Philly Mick, who only one week ago was dazzling us with dance moves in the Middle East and turned up with back spasms in his hometown that forced him to withdraw, or to Tiger, who turned in one of the most foreign performances of his career, considering the venue.

In the meantime, it’s Scott Stallings’ world. Even if you least expected it.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

72-71-79 – 6-over 222, Tiger Woods, Made Cut – Did Not Finish, Farmers Insurance Open, Torrey Pines (South), La Jolla, Calif.

Say what?

It’s one thing for all of us to have our chin-rubbing theories on Tiger at major championships, and whether the Ghost of Jack, or the Shame of the Public Fall is the reason why he can’t perform at peak level at the four majors.

It’s entirely another to see him flail and fail at Torrey Pines, which is among golf courses to Tiger Woods as the blanket is to Linus in “Peanuts.”

Tiger was 1-under after 36 holes, nine back of halfway leader Spieth. We were surprised, yes, that he hadn’t torn up Torrey in the first two days, but we as a golf-loving public were also fully prepared for him to slowly and forcefully march his way up the leaderboard on Saturday and Sunday and at least forge a top-10 finish, if not a win, by day’s end on Sunday.

And then, Saturday happened. What the heck was that?

It wasn’t just that his drives were errant, or that his approaches were wild, or that he missed both right and left, or that he had SEVEN CONSECUTIVE HOLES AT BOGEY OR WORSE, a career-worst stretch.

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Tiger Woods' private reflection time didn't help during Saturday's third round. (AP)

It was that he looked so mentally out of it.

Of course, that’s a subjective take; and of course, that presumes a lot of unscientific conclusions. But when you see Tiger Woods airmail a green out of a bunker, and then chunk a chip, and then miss a short putt, you think: When have I ever seen such a lack of concentration from the greatest player of his generation?

Certainly, we saw some of that erratic stuff in 2010 when the public fallout from his divorce and affairs punctured his aura of invincibility and he was a lost soul. But in 2013, Tiger won five times, and he won at the courses he loves and owns, and Torrey Pines might be the most loved and most owned of them all, eight times over, including a U.S. Open that happened to be epic and historic and legendary and … his last major.

On top of that, he forced us to ponder the whole nature of the ‘MDF’, the Saturday cut rule instituted in 2008 that still looks weird in a Sunday morning boxscore. Put ‘MDF’ next to Tiger’s name at Torrey and it feels like we’re on Mars.

The safe bet is to chock Tiger’s Saturday to just “one of those things” and say “It’s golf. It’s the devil’s own game.” That’s the smart money, and he’ll likely be back and revving this week in Dubai, embarrassed by Torrey and driven to make good.

Besides, he made a 10-footer to break 80, so he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

“It’s been a long, hard season.” --- David Feherty, CBS, after Tiger Woods chunked a chip in Saturday’s third round.

Feherty’s ironic statement on Tiger’s 2014 lid-lifter was part of a banner week of Broadcast Moment of the Week candidates in CBS’ first weekend of the year. For starters, Ian Baker-Finch rushed in to try and clarify Feherty’s witticism, opining in broadly obvious terms, “Of course, this is the first event back for Tiger”, like the kid in class who raises his hand to tell the teacher that someone isn’t doing their assignment correctly. You could almost hear Feherty’s head slap.

Meanwhile, we were treated to CBS’ season-opening video montage, set to Katy Perry’s pop hit, “Roar,” surely pleasing the 12-year-old girl demographic tuned in to Torrey Pines. Or, was it a subliminal pep talk to Rory McIlroy?

Sir Nick Faldo is back in the continental U.S., and Jim Nantz was sure to call him ‘Sir Nick’ to open Sunday’s broadcast. Wait, didn’t we fight a Revolutionary War so we don’t have to call him that? Anyway, in Saturday’s broadcast, CBS cameras caught a Torrey Pine collapsing and falling to earth. Faldo then mused about the very nature of existence, saying: “I guess it’s had enough of life.” While we pondered that existential statement, the question entered all of our minds: If a tree falls at Torrey, and Sir Nick is there to comment on it, does it make a sound?

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Tiger Woods' last win: WBC Bridgestone Invitational on Aug. 4. (USA Today)

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

The first time I ever covered an event at Torrey Pines was in 2001, when a guy named Frank Lickliter was closing in on a win, then came to the 17th hole and tugged his drive into that awful shrub/barranca/canyon/death trap to the left. Other than two quiet PGA Tour wins, we never heard from Frank Lickliter again.

And here came Gary Woodland to the 17th hole, trying to chase down Scott Stallings. He’d need to par the difficult 17th and then use his prodigious length to birdie 18 to force a playoff, and it all seemed so doable – until Woodland was visited by the Ghost of Lickliter and tugged his tee shot into that awful shrub/barranca/canyon/death trap. There’s no life there. There’s no chance there. There’s no there there.

Woodland made double bogey ‘6’ and was toast.

So, in the interest of making a climactic 72nd hole, in the interest of seeing if big-hitting Gary Woodland could eagle the 18th for the win, instead of limping home, and in the interest of not remembering the Ghost of Frank Lickliter, let’s go back out to 17 tee, remind Woodland to take dead aim and . . . give that man a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Tiger is on his way to Dubai, surprising his hotel with a phone call from the private jet asking for an early check-in. Imagine the indignity if Woods has to cool his heels in the lobby of his Dubai digs, waiting for the previous guest to check out and maid service to clean the room. Like the rest of us, he can browse the gift shop, buy a USA Today and some gum.

Meanwhile, Stateside, it’s Super Bowl Sunday and that means Phil Mickelson, pending the health of his back, will try to defend at the Phoenix Open. That also means the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale takes center stage in the golf world. Caddie races, clever chants, pie-eyed golf fans passing out after all-day drinking . . . good times, America.

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