JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Tiger Woods' latest major championship began, as all good days of destiny do, with a first-hole birdie, an early gift and, at least in theory, a sign of good things to come. It ended in despair, defeat, and the very real question of whether Woods can ever again put together a sustained four days of championship-caliber golf.
Woods started Thursday with promise, but ended with a 77, his worst-ever score in a PGA Championship. To make matters worse for Woods, his occasional Ryder Cup partner Steve Stricker posted a record-tying 63, leaving Woods an astonishing 14 shots out of the lead after just the first day.
Woods always draws a crowd, even for an 8:35 a.m. Thursday tee time, and the throngs skipping work and school to see the world's best-known athlete stood at least six deep on Woods' earliest holes. He teed off on the 10th, and followed that birdie with two more over the next four holes. Ninety minutes into his first major since Augusta, and he was three under and in a tie for the lead. Putts were dropping, tee shots were landing in fairways, and as Woods pumped his fist and the crowd's cheers rolled through the Georgia pines, it was almost as if the last two years had never even happened.
And then Atlanta Athletic Club forced its way into the story. The final four holes of the course are among the four toughest closing holes in golf, two water-guarded par 3s; a steeply uphill par 4 with a green banked like a pool table leaned against a wall; and the demonic 18, whose wide but water-fronted green tempts you to swing big even as both common sense and intuition scream at you to lay up.
Woods stepped to the tee at 15 with the gallery easily 15 deep around the tee box. He was wearing a pink Nike shirt, and so could you if you'd stopped by the PGA Championship merch tent and picked up one of the "Tiger Thursday" replicas.
Woods' temporary caddy, longtime friend Bryon Bell, handed Woods a four-iron. The pin was toward the front edge of the green. A simple enough shot, even if it was 260 yards over water. Woods twirled his club, settled in, swung …
… and everything went straight to hell.
The ball started right and never drew back, ending up in the water. "Swing left!" Woods barked at himself, along with a couple of other words not fit for a family website. One drop and a two-putt later, and Woods was suddenly back at -1. His playing partners, Davis Love III and Padraig Harrington, stumbled off the greens with bogeys of their own, and the 15th had drawn first blood.
The 16th at AAC shoots practically straight uphill, and Woods began the hole with what would become an unfortunate hallmark of this round: a visit to a fairway bunker. His punch-out sailed to the edge of the gallery on the other side of the course, and it was immediately obvious that whatever mojo had gotten Woods to three-under had vanished completely. Another bogey left him even on the day.
A par on the 17th slowed the avalanche, but then Woods took on the 18th and lost ugly. His shot into the fairway bunker was so plugged that he had no choice but to dump it back out onto the fairway, which he followed with a layup-be-damned hammer of a shot across the water, but he still double-bogeyed that hole. (Bell, perhaps flustered at the dramatic u-turn, forgot to rake Woods' initial bunker shot, and Padraig Harrington's caddy gently tended to the task for him.)
If the train left the tracks on Woods' first nine, it plowed right off a cliff on his second. He would go on to drop 9 strokes over the course of 10 holes. By the fourth hole, his 13th of the day, he'd given up the fight, his head down, his stride hollow confidence. And the gallery knew it; pleas of "Come on, Tiger!" replaced the rolling cheers that had dominated his first holes … and, indeed, much of his career. Even the applause on the lone birdie he sank on the back nine, on the 5th hole, was the kind you give a struggling Little Leaguer when he manages to foul off a pitch.
Yes, it's come to this: Tiger Woods is now getting charity applause.
He would go on to finish the round at seven over, a horrific performance capped by a final hole in which he hit two bunkers and had to tap in after missing a reasonably makeable putt. Afterward, he took four minutes of media questions, and he expressed nothing but frustration with himself and his performance.
"I had been playing very mechanical golf [for the first few holes], and the instant I started to go by feel, I screwed up," he said. "You're at a major, you're ready to let it go and play by feel … I can't do that."
Woods has made many enemies and disgusted or disappointed many people over the years. But those who believe in what-goes-around are surely enjoying this moment. Woods' greatest asset, his incomparable game, has completely deserted him. He can't shape the ball's flight the way he used to, he can't dominate fields the way he used to, he doesn't own the game the way he used to. He may still win, he may still win big. But clearly, those days are still well in the future.
As Woods trudged up the fifth hole, walking apart from caddies and playing partners, alone with his thoughts, a fan offered up what he surely thought was encouragement, but which came off as something far worse:
"Next time, Tiger," the guy said.
Woods must have heard him, but didn't even break stride.