UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Tiger Woods literally was pitiful Thursday at Chambers Bay.
A golfer who once evoked awe and adulation from the galleries instead evoked pity while shooting an inept, inglorious 80 in the first round of the U.S. Open. It was surreal. The fans actually felt sorry for the former lord of golf.
They tried to buck him up, as if they had encountered a former high school golden boy now down on his luck as an adult.
Second hole: "Let's go, Tiger! Long week, buddy! Long week! Let's battle!"
Fifth hole: "We still believe, Tiger!"
Sixth: "You're still The Man!"
He is, of course, no longer The Man. Woods wasn't even good enough to beat an adolescent Thursday, shooting three shots worse than 15-year-old Cole Hammer. Nor was he good enough to come within 10 shots of The Old Man, 51-year-old Colin Montgomery, who somehow shot 69 nine years after the last time he was in contention in the U.S. Open. It will take a drastically improved round tomorrow from Woods just to make the cut.
The second-saddest part of Woods' 80 is the fact that it came on a day when Chambers Bay failed to live up to its nightmarish hype. The long, steep, strange links track rolled over and played dead for the golfers: 25 of them broke par, and 41 were even par or better. The course was there to be had, and instead it mauled the greatest player of the 21st century.
The saddest part of that 80? That came after the round, when Woods briefly met the media. Credit him for not ducking that obligation – but what came out of his mouth deepened the suspicion that he is in denial about the desertion of his game.
"It's just one of those things where I've got to work through it," Woods said. "I'm trying as hard as I can, and for some reason I just can't get it turned around with any consistency."
Someone asked if he's still close to getting it turned around.
"I am," he said. "When I do it right, it's so easy. I just need to do it more often. … I fought. I fought hard. That was my number. I couldn't grind out any harder than that."
Woods compared it to the tribulations endured during previous swing changes – as if this is merely a small matter of mechanics that can be smoothed out with enough time on the range and enough rounds of competitive golf. It's no small matter. It's a complete breakdown – physical and mental.
[Slideshow: Round 1 at the U.S. Open]
Tiger refuses to talk like a beaten man, but he keeps playing like one.
Maybe the fans are fueling his denial. Maybe he actually believes the platitudes that pour into his ears.
Seventh hole: "It'll come back!"
Eighth: "Lots of birdie holes left!"
Seventeenth: "It's only day one! Let's go!"
So much pity in the air. Yet golf is a pitiless game, capable of destroying even its legends. It has happened many times before – but the deconstruction of Tiger Woods ranks among the most stark comeuppances any golfer has ever endured.
This round had to be his professional nadir. It's nowhere near as bad as the personal rock bottom he hit five years ago, but to shoot 80 in a major with no valid excuse is a disaster. Woods beat exactly two golfers in the field of 156: playing partner Rickie Fowler (11 over) and the immortal Rich Berberian, Jr. (13 over).
"The good news is that I kicked Rickie's butt," Woods said, flashing a little gallows humor.
Another sad element to Woods' round: it wasn't altogether unexpected.
He came into the tournament No. 195 in the World Golf Rankings, and the last time he played he put a smooth 85 on the card in the third round at The Memorial. So expectations were good and low when the round began at 2:28 p.m. PDT.
It started with a bandwagon loaded to a fraction of the glory-days capacity.
Seven photographers and three reporters showed up at the first tee to follow Tiger. A few years ago there would have been five times those numbers. Maybe more.
But times have changed. Swings have changed. Results have drastically changed.
Woods no longer moves the needle the way he once did. He no longer moves the golf ball the way he once did, either – it rarely seems to go where he wants it to go. And it didn't take long for that to be the case here. Woods never spent a second of Thursday under par.
His second shot on the first hole evoked a "dammit" from Woods as the ball flailed short and right of the green – "stubbed a six-iron in the ground," he said. That led to the first of eight bogeys on the day, along with a triple bogey and a lone birdie on No. 16.
He blocked just about everything to the right. He made zero putts. He rarely gave himself birdie opportunities, and did not scramble with any effectiveness. At one point, hitting out of the hay that he frequented much of the afternoon, the club went flying out of his hands on the follow-through.
And it actually could have been worse. Woods caught a very lucky break on the 10th hole, after blocking yet another iron shot into a greenside bunker. Confronted with a fried-egg lie, he stabbed at the ball and sent it screaming at a low trajectory – low enough that it fortuitously hit the collar of the bunker and popped up in the air, landing softly and trickling about three feet past the hole.
Woods was sufficiently amused by his good fortune that he shrugged his shoulders and then took a facetious bow toward the grandstand. Had he hit it about three inches higher, the ball would have flown the green and been in the hay on the opposite side. That par could have been a double bogey, and that 80 could have been an 82.
By then, the media accompaniment had dwindled to two writers and two photographers, plus Fox's Corey Pavin and a handful of TV support staff. Brian DiPasquale, the USGA's go-to guy for media crowd control when Woods is on the course, had almost no crowd to control.
As the temperature dipped in the final holes, Woods pulled on a sweater vest and stuffed his hands in his pockets as he walked between shots – looking like a beaten man. The only good news came with that birdie on 16 and a subsequent par on 17, raising the possibility that he would at least avoid the ignominy of 80.
All he needed was par on the par-5 18th, and he gave himself a chance for that by hitting his drive down the middle. (Fan pity after that drive: "You can make the weekend, Tiger! You can make the weekend!")
Trying to go for the green in two, he took out a fairway wood – and just topped it. The ball came to rest in a deep fairway bunker way short of the green – a bunker that really should only come in play for the common hacks who pay to play the course. Woods spent about five seconds in the bunker before blasting out, as if he were embarrassed to be seen in such a location.
Walking to the green, the fans tried again to say something nice.
"Tiger, you've got this!"
"Tiger, I believe!"
"Love you, Tiger!"
The last image of the round was Woods sweating over a four-foot bogey putt for 80, in front of hundreds of empty green seats in the grandstand. He made it, laughed mirthlessly with Fowler (81) and Louie Oosthuizen (77), and then walked up the hill to the scorer's trailer.
To his right, two fans held up Tiger bobbleheads. And then someone shouted out one more pitiful sentence of encouragement.
"Get 'em next year, Tiger!"
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