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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – A light rain was falling and half of Long Island was scrambling through the mud that has become as much a part of a Bethpage Black major as the course's iconic caddie logo when Tiger Woods teed off for his second round on Friday.
Anticipation rarely matches reality when it comes to Tiger and those expectations have only been tilted further in the wake of his victory at the Masters. All of New York was poised for something special, but he gave them nothing.
He scrambled for par at No. 1, bogeyed the second hole from the rough and made an indifferent par at the fourth. There was also a missed 6-footer for par at the seventh. Tiger didn’t hit his first fairway of the day until the ninth hole. It was one of only three.
The crowd was poised for an epic charge, the kind that made Tiger appointment viewing every time he nudged within a touchdown of a lead. But by the time he opened his inward loop with three consecutive bogeys to drop to 5 over and two shots on the wrong side of the projected cut, anticipation had been replaced by angst.
Tiger started the week at the PGA Championship as the betting favorite. The stars were aligned. He would etch his name into the Wanamaker Trophy for the fifth time. He would tie Sam Snead with a record 82 PGA Tour victories. He would inch to within two Grand Slam victories of Jack Nicklaus’ record haul of 18.
It was perfect. It didn't happen.
Tiger missed the cut at a major for just the ninth time as a professional with a 3-over 73 on Day 2 and a 5-over total, one shot removed from a weekend tee time.
“Well, I'm not playing the weekend,” Woods said with a look of resignation etched across his face.
Excuses really aren’t Tiger’s thing. In good times or in bad, he’s always clung to a simple truth: play better. He wasn’t going to start conjuring scapegoats just because things didn’t go his way at the new May PGA. But it doesn’t take a deep dive to assess what happened at Bethpage.
The PGA Championship was Tiger’s first start since winning last month’s Masters. Although this isn’t exactly out of the ordinary, it does offer a viable explanation for his play. His 15th major triumph at Augusta National released a decade of pent up emotion, and he conceded this week he didn’t want to begin the “grind” to prepare for the Wells Fargo Championship, which would have been his likely start between majors.
The issue was compounded by poor weather to start the week. He played just nine holes on Monday in a cold rain, opted for only a range session on Tuesday and didn’t even make it to the course on Wednesday.
“I got a little bit sick, so I decided to stay home,” he explained on Thursday.
Although he spent a day last week at Bethpage scouting the layout with caddie Joe LaCava, it wasn't rigorous prep. For a man whose career has been anchored by a work ethic that is often under-appreciated, the simplest reasoning for his missed cut is rust — not that Tiger was having any part of that discussion.
“No, no, no. Definitely not,” he said when asked if his lack of practice impacted his play. “It's just the way it goes. Just don't feel well and just not able to do it. But resting would be better, so I would have energy to play. Unfortunately, I just made too many mistakes and just didn't do the little things I need to do.”
Tiger said the same thing when he missed the cut at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The ’06 championship was his first start following the passing of his father, Earl, a month earlier. He had gone nearly two months between events. It’s worth noting that Woods won his next major start at the ’06 Open Championship following a more traditional tune-up that included a tournament two weeks before arriving at Hoylake.
“It was off today, for sure. But around here, you miss fairways, you can get away with it for a while, but it’s going to catch up with you,” LaCava said. “It wasn’t like he was hitting it everywhere, but 6 feet off the fairway and you’re screwed. And obviously his feel wasn’t that great on the greens. You can see that.”
Tiger has repeatedly said that his schedule will be more selective going forward, the byproduct of the understandable aches and pains associated with a back that’s been operated on four times. If that means the occasional clunker interspersed with captivating performances like he produced at last month’s Masters, then so be it.
“Hoping to feel a little better, that's first and foremost,” Tiger said, when asked how he plans to prepare for his next start. “If I get that going a little better, start training and start practicing again and get back up to speed.”
For Tiger this is the new reality, a balancing act between staying sharp and game-ready while maintaining his health and being rested.
As he made his way up the hill on No. 18, the rain had finally stopped and the sun had peeked through the gloom. The crowd was still hopeful, but for this week, Tiger was finished.