Tiger Woods unravels, while Rory McIlroy remains calm and surges to top at PGA Championship

Eric Adelson
Yahoo! Sports

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- He swung out of his stance, he hit fans with errant shots, he talked to himself. He mishit drives, mishit recovery shots, mishit chips, mishit putts. And although there were many holes still to play when the rains came to halt Round 3, the iconic moment of the day was surely the site of Tiger Woods, crouched over a ball marker after a failed putt, staring straight down in disbelief.

Woods still has a major weekend problem. And as hard as it is to believe, the greatest pressure player in a generation is forming a habit of crumbling in the sport’s biggest moments.

He’s come apart in every major this season, and in staggering fashion. It happened at the Masters, at the U.S. Open, at the British Open, and now here – at least so far on this weekend. Saturday he plummeted from 4-under to start the day to 1-under after only seven laborious holes. He hit only three of seven greens and three of six fairways. The rest of Round 3 could turn into a remarkable comeback on Sunday but Woods is now facing his seventh weekend round at a major this year without breaking par.

Every front nine mistake on Saturday seemed not only more surprising, but more robotic than the last. It all appeared forced, from the way Woods swung at his short chips to the way he signed gloves for his fans. And the tightness was put in stark relief by Rory McIlroy, two groups ahead, who swung and recovered and scored like he was sure to eventually come from out of nowhere to take the lead. And he did.

The shortest putts vexed Woods, leaving him muttering and staring. He missed a four-footer on No. 3 that had him crumpled over, inconsolable. Two more bogeys ensued. Meanwhile, hundreds of yards ahead, McIlroy treated potential disasters like adventures. When his tee shot on No. 3 landed in a tree, his caddie and course officials ran around looking for the ball like squirrels. McIlroy, when the ball was found lodged in a branch, peered at the white orb like a NASA scientist watching the Mars rover on tape. “Wow,” he said.

[Related: Another PGA Championship, another tree incident with Rory McIlroy]

He then took a drop, landed his next shot safely on the green, and saved par.

On No. 9, a hole so aggravating in Rounds 1 and 2 that golfers scored more than 100 bogeys and only 10 birdies, McIlroy hit his approach from the left rough, twirled the club in his left hand as it flew, and had no reaction as it landed in a front bunker. Oh well.

He carded a bogey and strode on. Then, during the rain delay, he tweeted out a photo of children dressed up as himself and girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. Hardly a sign of stress.

Woods, in contrast, couldn’t get out of his own way. Not only did each shot spiral into the next, but the whole front nine was a carryover from the final four-foot putt Friday, which was easily makeable and darkened his entire mood when he missed. Woods has lost four shots in his last eight holes.

So what’s the problem? Woods may not even know the answer to that question. Perhaps he does feel the pressure of trying to be “back” and catching Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships. Perhaps he simply needs to get more “reps,” which is his favorite word for practicing and playing until there’s no more daylight and no more doubt

But it also could be something much simpler. This is a man who has had several knee operations and may not be able to physically excel in the later rounds of a grueling tournament the way he could at the early stages. And if that is the case, Sunday will be a huge challenge for a golfer who has to shake off a bad Saturday, fight through 29 holes starting at 7:45 a.m., and pass 16 players in front of him, including McIlroy, the co-leader (along with Vijay Singh) at 6-under.

“Physically it’s a big golf course,” McIlroy said. “It’s going to take its toll, especially at the end of the week.”

McIlroy has to play 27 holes of his own Sunday, but he doesn’t seem to care. “It’s fine,” he said numerous times after play was called. “I don’t mind. I definitely don’t mind that. I don’t mind a bit.”

So much for regretting the end of his nine holes of momentum.

[Related: Play suspended for Saturday; to resume early Sunday]

McIroy gave off a sense of not only confidence after his round, but calm. As befuddled as he’s been throughout this season by poor performances, he appears ready for anything now. “If it was 36 holes tomorrow,” he said, “I’d be happy as well.”

Happy is not the word to describe Woods. It’s certainly a good thing he got a reprieve from his own poor play, but he still has to make clutch putts. He has to make a lot of them.

"I got off to a rough start today and couldn’t get anything going,” Woods said in a statement via the PGA. “I’ll come back tomorrow morning and see what happens. There are a lot of holes left to play."

After the rains came, CBS showed the 2009 PGA Championship, in which Woods surprisingly fell to upstart Y.E. Yang. It seemed like every putt that day was a near-miss for Woods, which serves as a reminder that although his public fortunes turned when his marriage unraveled, his golf game during the weekend at majors started to unravel before his private life did.

If the trend continues Sunday, he’ll be 37 years old before he gets another shot to end it.

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