ARDMORE, Pa. — When Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy both hit first-hole birdie putts, it seemed as if the golf world might finally need to buckle for a fun game of "anything you can do, I can do better."
Instead, it cringed as another matchup of the world's top two golfers went step for step in a race to the bottom on the third day of the U.S. Open. Merion Golf Club's cranky old east course slipped each man's chances into a tight sleeper hold.
Woods finished the day with a six-over 76, bringing his tournament total to +9. McIlroy was one stroke better, posting a 75 for a tournament total of +8. Without a major surge on Sunday (and a collapse from the top of the field), both golfers will be waving the white wicker basket on their way out of town.
"I'm eight over par for the tournament," McIlroy said. "I reckon I could get back to three or four over par and finish the U.S. Open on a positive note and get something out of it at least."
That Sunday has come to moral victories for the pair is a shame because we waited for three days for their pairing to produce something worth remembering. After playing a practice round together on Wednesday, Woods and McIlroy joined Adam Scott for the first two rounds. Both men ended up at +3 after posting rounds of 70 and 73 on opposite days and then Scott was swapped out for Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano in Round 3. With the leaders just four shots away, Saturday's tee time had a hopeful feel. Maybe the drier conditions at Merion would open things up for the two men wearing the Nike swoosh.
Yet "the Merion moment" that occurred when both golfers birdied the first hole and were funneled across Ardmore Avenue through a tunnel of cheers was really just that — a singular moment. McIlroy made the first slip, sailing his tee shot No. 2 well over the street he had just crossed and into a backyard without ever hitting asphalt. While the young Irishman recovered nicely with a bogey save, the momentum had already swung.
"We both struggled today," Woods said after the round. "We both didn't get ourselves back in the tournament. We did what we needed to do at the first hole and got off to a nice start.
"[But] he made a mistake on the second and I made a few mistakes on the front nine myself."
Someone asked Woods where the birdies might have been during his round of struggles.
"They were on the first hole," he said. "That was it."
It's almost depressing to recount the rest of the day's troubles. Both men bogeyed No. 3 after leaving their tee shots short of the green on the monster par 3. Woods would bogey the third, fifth, sixth, 10th, 12th, 16th and the 18th while McIlroy would bogey the second, third, fifth, sixth, ninth, 11th and 15th. The only birdie either man would record after that first hole was a one-under by McIlroy on the seventh. (Despite being the unknown member of the threesome, Fernandez-Castano posted the best round with a 72.)
Woods still isn't letting on about how much his wrist hurts past saying he first injured it at The Players Championship on a hole and shot he won't name. While he's won four tournaments this season, including The Players Championship, everyone's still waiting for him to break through and win that first major since he hobbled through a playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open. That "While We're Young" PSA he just filmed for the USGA? Yeah, you might also say it can apply in our wait for Woods to add a 15th major win.
McIlroy, meanwhile, continues to struggle during a 2013 season that hasn't seen him win a tournament. (His highest finish was second at the Texas Open in early April.) The 24-year-old is often mentioned as the heir apparent to Woods' throne but it's clear his consistency needs a lot of work. He won the 2011 U.S. Open, but didn't make the cut in the years on either side of it. He won the 2012 PGA Championship but finished no higher than T-25 in the five majors wedged in between that win and his 2011 triumph at The Congressional.
"I think it's confidence and fluidity," McIlroy said. "I don't have any other way to explain it. I've been working on the swing quite hard over the last few months and it looks really good on camera. I just get on the course and I hit a couple of bad shots and I guess that it sort of makes you lose your confidence a little bit during the round."
Golf, of course, is a tricky and fickle game and it takes so many things going right to produce the famous duels we've loved over the sport's history. Maybe one day we'll see a great Woods-McIlroy battle, but until then we'll take the knowledge that it takes a lot more ingredients than simply occupying the same threesome for a few straight days.