ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Not long ago you could bank on the Old Course bringing out the best in Tiger Woods.
This was something else entirely.
On Thursday at the 144th British Open, Woods added a new chapter to his Season of Misery, a grisly four-over 76 that left him 11 shots behind clubhouse leader Dustin Johnson with the afternoon tee times still on the course. It was a shocking result at a revered track he once dominated while winning St. Andrews Opens in 2000 and 2005.
Those titles now feel almost as ancient as the gray stone walls surrounding the place.
As Woods teed off at 9:55 a.m. local time, Mother Nature (or perhaps, Scottish Weather Spirits) offered up a special gift: idyllic scoring conditions. Red numbers spackled the leaderboards, and a sturdy Swede named David Lingmerth led the field after posting 29 on the front nine.
Twenty-nine? David Lingmerth?
It was go time, but Woods never answered the bell. He took a mid-iron off the first tee and struck a nervy shot fat but up the fairway. Crowds cheered him as he strolled past the grandstands. Faced with a simple approach, Woods hit a stunningly poor shot that splashed into the Swilcan Burn in front of the green. The crowd hushed. Woods made a bogey.
“Discouraging, yeah. I was angered a little bit,” Woods said of his start. “But hey, I figured I've got 17 holes to fight through it.”
That battle never materialized. On the par-4 2nd, Woods laid more sod while leaving his approach from 175 yards about 40 yards short and lipped out the par putt, prompting a sage Scottish fan along the ropes to mutter, “Aye Tiger, you’re goin’ too fast.”
More carnage piled up quickly. On the par-5 fifth, Woods pulled his drive left, yanked his approach even farther and yakked a 3-footer for par. On the 7th the winds finally arrived, and Woods’ approach spun off the front of the green and down the slope, setting up another lipped-out par putt. He made the turn in 4-over 40.
Woods blew a five-footer on 10 for a fifth bogey, and on 12 he stone-chunked a pitch shot. He got up-and-down for his lone birdie of the round on the par-5 14th, but by then the damage was done. His 76 was the fourth-highest score of morning tee times and his worst score as a pro at the Old Course. He hit just 10 of 18 greens in regulation.
“I've got to just fight through it. I know that today is a very benign day,” Woods said. “Guys have been shooting good numbers. Unfortunately I did not do that.”
Woods has missed just one Open cut in his pro career, at Turnberry in 2009, and his worst finish at St. Andrews is a tie for 23rd in 2010. Each of those resume lines might need an update before the weekend. On Friday afternoon he’ll battle to avoid a second straight major-championship missed cut, and it won’t be easy: the weather forecast calls for 40 mph gusts.
“I'm so far back and the leaderboard is so bunched that in order for me to get in there by Sunday, I'm going to have to have the conditions tough and then obviously put together some really solid rounds,” Woods said.
At the Chambers Bay U.S. Open, where Woods flamed out while finishing 151st out of 156, it seemed his game had reached rock bottom. But Chambers was tricked up and unfamiliar, and Woods entered that event after a career-worst 85 at the Memorial. This week, Woods was coming off an encouraging T32 at The Greenbrier. He clearly had fun at Wednesday’s hit-and-giggle Champion Golfers’ Challenge. His practice sessions looked crisp. The Old Course is—he has often repeated—one of his favorite spots on earth.
Now it could become the scene of his lowest point yet.